Writing Devices: Transitions


A couple of weeks ago, before I got sidetracked with explaining the small press contract (which I updated. It does cost $35.00 to list a copyright. Oops. But still cheap!), I had a writer friend say to me (paraphrasing here): I have trouble with transitions. Too many? Needs a text break? Chapter break? How do you do them with the proper finesse? How do you avoid the word *then*?

First, a definition:

tran·si·tion n.
1. Passage from one form, state, style, or place to another.
2.  a. Passage from one subject to another in discourse.  b. A word, phrase, sentence, or series of sentences connecting one part of a discourse to another.
3. Music a. A modulation, especially a brief one.  b. A passage connecting two themes or sections.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

There is no cut and dried way to do a transition, except for using as few then(s) as possible. (As in, He went to the river and fished. Then he drove home.). I always do a then search and if I have more than ten in a manuscript, I start cutting, but that’s my own personal rule, not something hard and fast. Whatever rules there are, we at MW like to say, if it works, do it. No one way works for every writer, or even for every story. With my own transitions, I follow no hard fast rules. Sometimes I do a chapter break in the middle of an action scene, sometimes at the end. Sometimes I transition with a text break, sometimes I use a phrase to indicate the transitional change.

I am not musically minded, but I like the musical definition as it might be applied to the written word:

A modulation, especially a brief one.  b. A passage connecting two themes or sections.

I sent my friend a few of my own transitional devices, from my 2010 book BloodCross, with explanations and observations, and thought I’d share them here with you guys.

From BloodCross

This scene did not need a text break for transition. I just used the word *downstairs*:

She hesitated for an instant, clearly remembering Leo Pellissier and his vamp-goons. She shook her head. “Not until Big Evan gets back from Brazil and the contractor has the new room closed in. A house with no walls means I can’t ward it properly.” She held up a hand to stop my protests. “We’re in less danger here than we are in the hills without Big Evan. And you know we’ve had . . . trouble lately. My kind aren’t exactly popular. I’ll go back in two weeks like we planned. Besides”–her tone grew ironic and she sipped her tea–“you actually need us now. Angie’s the only reason why Leo didn’t burn the house down around you. He won’t be back, at least until he can make sure of killing only you and not a houseful of children. And the wards will never be down again.”

I flinched just the tiniest bit. She had a point. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll be careful.” I took my own mug in hand, the stoneware warm and oddly comforting. “See you in the morning. Night, Molly.”

“Night, Big Cat.”

Downstairs, while I sipped hot tea, I put my silvered chain-mail collar on over the gold-nugget and chain necklace I never took off, added a couple more crosses, tied and strapped on my new steel-toed boots, and a thick denim jacket I’d picked up in a shop catering to farmers to replace the leather jacket lost in my last vamp fight. Another was on order, but until it arrived, denim would have to do. I holstered my big-ass shotgun across my back. I tugged on my hair to make sure it was difficult to grab. Long hair made a handy-dandy handle to pull in a fight, and once an opponent had it, the fight was over. Rapists and vamps like victims with long hair. Makes them easy to control. I could cut it, but I’d never shifted with short hair and didn’t know if that would alter the process.

[End of segment]


There were actually several transitions in the above segment. The first paragraphs are an emotional transition conveyed in dialogue, internal and external. Then the physical transition. Frankly, if I had to write that passage again, I’d to it differently, especially the part: “And you know we’ve had . . . trouble lately. My kind aren’t exactly popular.” But the book is already in print and hindsight for writers is a cruel master.

This is an example of a chapter break in the middle of the action. There is no transition here at all, but the break in this spot ups the ante on tension:

Shouting, I called into the darkness, “I’m looking for Derek Lee, ex-marine, if a marine can ever be called ex. Did two tours in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.”

My voice echoed in the night. From a house behind me, I heard the distinctive sh-thunk of a bolt-action rifle being readied for firing.

Chapter Two
Have Stakes, Will Travel

In one of Bitsa’s tiny rearview mirrors, I saw a slice of light followed by a pinpoint of red. A laser-targeting sight. Crap. The killing spot between my shoulder blades began to itch. So I got louder, raised my voice as thunderous as I could. “Derek told me he thought he’d be safe when he came home to the United States. Instead, he found his neighborhood was full of blood-sucking vamps. He had to go back to war just to keep his family out of harm’s way. So I’m looking for Derek. He knows me as Injun Princess.” I didn’t necessarily love the nickname, but it seemed to amuse Derek.
[End of segment]

I didn’t have to do the break this way. I could have waited until the next page and a break in the action. There’s no right way. This one just suited me. I liked the intense emotion of having Jane with a laser sight on her back. It was like a slap in the face. It made me want to turn the page and keep reading. There is the additional thought that, since some readers have time limits on their reading and set goals to stop at chapter breaks, well, maybe now they won’t be able to keep that goal and will keep on reading. This is a bit of stylistic pacing that I like, and that a lot of writers use.

Here’s an example of a chapter break that worked as a transition:

I didn’t quite know what to say to that, so I stood mute, looking over the office, memorizing vamp party dates on Ernestine’s calendar, categorizing everything I could identify in the safe, and staring at the electronic brain of a security system as she wrote a check, making a lot of curlicues and flourishes with the antique-looking pen. She blew on the check as if the ink took a while to dry and scooted it across the desk to me, along with a card. Her name with the initials CPA was centered on it, a phone number beneath. “There you are, my dear. Next time, please call ahead. I’ll have a check ready, and will leave it at the front desk.”

So I wouldn’t have to bring my muddy-booted, bad ol’ fighting self inside. Got it. “Thank you,” I said, taking the check and folding it into a pocket. WWF backed from the room and I followed. At the front door, I weaponed up and gave a two-fingered salute to WWF as I left.

Out on the street, the muggy wind in my teeth, I shuddered hard. When I went into vamp headquarters and came out alive, I felt as if I had fought a battle and survived. Not won it. Just survived it. And for some reason that I couldn’t name, this trip had been worse than the last. 

Chapter 3
Golden Eyes, My Daughter

Back at home, I slipped through the ward, which was keyed to me in some arcane way that Molly had tried to explain one time and which I had totally not understood. After locking away the weapons so the kids couldn’t find them, I stripped, showered, and fell into bed. Beast had wanted me to shift so she could roam until sunrise, but I needed sleep. Once on the mattress, however, I couldn’t relax, seeing again and again the tiny fangs hinge down, like baby teeth in a human. Most of the time it was easy dispatching a rogue, but watching this young rogue rise in her stained party dress, and then seeing her eyes bleeding back to humanity as she died, had left a bad taste in my mouth; I felt shaken by the experiences of the night, dirty almost. I needed . . . cleansing. I rolled over on the mattress, knowing it was time to do something I’d been putting off for a long while.
[End of segment] 

There are multiple transitions at the end of chapter 2. The first one is the emotional, locational, and physical action in the next to the last para. 1.) Jane realized and accepted that she had been politely insulted. She was polite about it with her Thank you reply. 2.) At the door, she gave a different kind of send off, based on a different kind of character she was associating with. I ended with the word left.

There is a certain finality in the last para and the last line of chapter 2. 1.)  Jane walked away from chapter 2 glad to be alive, which makes us open to new experiences. And sometimes makes us reflect on our own mistakes. 2.)  This trip had been worse than the last. Last is the last word. It is an unconscious indication that there will be a major transition, in this case, in location, emotion, and even the tone, with the AmIn-sounding chapter title.

This post was starting to run too long, so I’ll stop here and pick back up next week, Tuesday the 23rd, rather than my regular day. However, that said, I like my original last para so much that I want to use it here, even though I’ll be reusing it next week too. Why? Because the best transitions do more than one thing, which I’ll illustrate next week. For now, you can read back over the previous examples if you want, and see what else the transitions accomplished. Some of them are subtle. Some of them only do singular duty.

Most transitions should be sans then. Transitions that do double duty (triple? more?) are my favorite kind of transitions, but all transitions work like a mountain river as it flows downstream. The goal (if you believe that water is alive and has goals) is to get to the bottom of a mountain, to transition from the top of a range, to a lake, and then to the sea. But it has other goals too. It is a passageway for migrating fish. It carries away animal waste. It allows rain to find an outlet and not sit on top of the ground creating swamps. It (unwittingly) makes transportation up- and downstream for humans and animals. It makes great kayak runs. J It carves the mountain away, exposing and even moving rocks and boulders, undercutting banks and trees as it reshapes the landscape. It feeds and waters the Earth. It changes things. And that is what a good transition does. It changes things. 



15 comments to Writing Devices: Transitions

  • Faith,
    as ever your attention to detail is impressive and enlightening. Thanks. I will have to mull the “then” issue, which I suspect I overuse.

  • AJ, I suppose I should have said that, right now, I have 101 *then*s in my WIP. I have a *lot* of work to do!

  • Yes! Thank you, Faith. I find most of my uses of “then” show up in dialogue, which I don’t mind, or as the conclusion to a list of actions. But when used as a transition, it does bug me. I’ve never actually counted how many I use (I’m sure it’s way too many), and now I’ll have to go through my latest WIP and start fixing. I’m looking forward to next weeks further discussion on this.

  • Good point, Stuart. Yes, *then* in dialoge is okay. I am hoping most of my WIP’s 101 *then*s are dialogue, but usually I’ve taken the lazy way out in the rough draft and used them in transitional phrases too.

    Thanks for the dialogue reminder!

  • The transitions I find toughest are those that come in the middle of a chapter, that don’t necessarily end with a MOMENT, like the sound of the loading rifle or the red laser pinpoint, but that get my protagonist or POV character from one place or conversation to the next. When I was writing multi-POV epic fantasies they were easier: I could simply switch POV and my transitions were done for me, in a way. Now that I’m writing single POV, those switches are more difficult and occasionally come out clunky. Still learning.

  • David, though I have written in multiple 3rd POV, I usually write in 1st person POV, and you are right it is much easier in 3rd. Just change character POV and you automatically have a transition.

    When I read other writer’s work, I am always stealing their devices, and adding to my device tool box; like you, still learning. Case in point, not long ago I found a writer who had great ways to indicate a smile. My favorite was *his teeth flashed in the night*. I must have seen it used before, but never noticed it. I thought it was *very* good! (Yes, I stole it!)

  • Sarah

    Thank you, Faith. I just spent the last few days (weeks?) erasing “then” from Emily and I’s WIP. We both have a tendency to be too cautious about sequences of actions and insert “then” into them as if the reader were going to be confused. A couple of times we’ve had intense debates over the necessity of a “then.” I think it comes from being teachers – in classes we have make crystal clear what students have to do and when to do it or they lawyer up after the fact and protest that they didn’t understand the assignment. But in fiction it sounds like we’re talking down to the reader or being pedantic when the tone of the passage should be something else.

  • Sarah, I totally understand the need of *then* in school. 🙂 And I agree that *then* is much less needed in fiction. David is always saying, “Trust your readers,” and this is one instance of that.

  • Tom G

    I never thought of using “then” as a problem. I use it often, I believe. So I checked my WIP, 107k with 320 uses of THEN. Ouch! Oh my lord.

    And I thought I was finished editing this novel.

  • Tom, as Stuart says, in dialogue it’s not such a big problem (if at all). But as a transition, it should be used very seldom.

  • Faith> Thanks for this. Transitions have always been a challenge for me. I second what Sarah says. I was just thinking I’d go through and find the “thens.” One day sooner on your post and the ‘script would have still been with her and SHE could have done it. 😉

    But I like the way you break chapters. I try to either break with a “holy crap! what’s next” moment or a soft sort of stopping place. A breath before the next jump. In my wips, a chapter break will often be a pov break too, since there are multiple povs in my books. Not always, but most of the time. Same with scene breaks in a chapter. But right now that’s just me! 🙂

  • Pea F Emily, you are welcome. My chapter-break methods have evolved over the years. And it’s part of the joy of the writing life — it never has to get boring!

  • Faith,

    Thanks for bringing this up. I’ve been doing NaNo this year, but even before that, lately I’ve noticed that “then” has become a bit of a crutch word. A *huge* crutch word this month, because we’re supposed to turn the inner editor off, but a crutch all the same.

    I also noticed that I do the exact same thing with other time transitions. “When” in particular (hm, sounds like then), but also “In the morning”, “That evening”, etc. I really appreciate you pointing out the descriptive power of the transitions that do extra work.

  • Unicorn

    My crutches run: “Next morning…” and “The next day…” Next is a bad word for me. My transitions are messy with Nexts. Oh, and another awful crutch is waking up. My characters are forever waking up. As in, “When he/she woke…” and often the wakings up have a Next in for good measure.
    A question. What do you think about using dialogue in transitions? As in, you have the end of one scene, perhaps a paragraph/chapter break, and the next scene starts with a line of dialogue. Hope I explained it properly. I always think of it as a sort of easy way out.
    Oh, and sorry for commenting late.

  • Hi Moria, Oh, yes. The *when* crutch. You know, I bettter add that to my list of words to scan for. It is so hard to *not* use a crutch. I go from one crutch to another!

    Fortunately, a writer is always becoming. 🙂

    Unicorn, I think dialogue (following a text or chapter break) is an excellent way to go! That said, to rely on one device at the expense of others can create a repetative resonance in the reader’s mind, and eventually pull him from the story. We have to allow the words and devices of our story to flow in new patterns to keep the reader’s mind involved.