Several months ago while watching the news on television, I learned a lesson about the importance of transitions.
It had been sixteen days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 mysteriously disappeared. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib announced, “It is, therefore, with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”
I watched in dismay as a major network played video of family members shrieking, crying, with some being carried out on stretchers. My heart went out to the people who just heard their loved ones were gone forever. I could only imagine their shock and pain at hearing these words.
This tragic scene immediately segued into an image of singer Shakira dressed in a skimpy belly dancing outfit gyrating to upbeat music in a fantasy forest. (Presumably, the probiotics in yogurt kept her “regular” and, therefore, joyful.) Dumbfounded, I struggled to keep up with the abrupt change of topic and emotion.
What happened? Apparently, they forgot the transition and failed to give the viewer time to adjust. The news anchor could have said, “We’re pausing for a commercial break.” Or, they could have faded to a black screen for a few seconds with somber music playing.
Before this experience I didn’t give transitions much thought. However, I have noticed when they are absent. I once read a mystery where the main character was shot and in critical condition in one scene, but training for a marathon in the next one. I stopped reading to see if a page was missing or if two pages were stuck together.
But what is a scene transition? Fiction Editor, Beth Hill, wrote an insightful blog about Mastering Scene Transitions. Basically, a scene transition:
· is not a scene, but the narration between scenes.
· brings characters and readers to a new location, point of view, or time.
· needs to identify place, time, and viewpoint character especially if there has been a change in any of the three.
· is used for skipping unimportant events, periods of time, or to change location.
· may be used to break tension or slow the pace.
· can show a character’s change of heart or mind.
· may be easily inserted at the beginning of chapters. However, you might need to change scenes within a chapter.
· often utilizes the technique of “telling” not “showing” which is discouraged in writing, but useful for transitions.
· can be as short as, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” or as long as a few paragraphs.
Also, Hill strongly advises against changing the point-of-view (POV) in the middle of a scene. She wrote that it’s confusing and could cause the reader to lose the connection with the viewpoint character. I remember reading a romance novel that switched from Jack’s POV to Sue’s in the middle of a love-making scene without the benefit of a transition. That was jarring! In my mind, Jack was caressing Sue’s face and toying with her rough, scruffy beard. It threw me for a loop and right out of the story.
So, how do you determine the correct length for a scene transition? If the transition is too long it becomes boring. But if it’s too brief, the reader may become confused. I haven’t found a precise answer to that question. Perhaps this an area where the art and magic of writing (aka rewriting) takes place.
Do you consider transitions when you write?
I do consider transitions. Although I'm not fond of leaving the reader hanging when action is about to start, I write in multiple POV. Often timing is essential in multiple POV manuscripts. One character is about to start an action scene, but something else has to happen, which will impact that character, so the writer must leave the one character hanging while the next scene adds that impact element by another. I figure as long as it's one scene (not too long) the tension will remain, and if the impact is severe, may ratchet up the tension a notch when getting back to the action scene.
Like changing tenses or inadvertently changing POVs in the middle of a scene, inappropriate transitions take the reader out of the story.
I know a woman who scheduled commercials into broadcasts. Often, they don't have much choice about what will run. They have ad length coordination, ad frequency and time-of-day stipulations. They may not know what news items will run on a particular day, only that they are scheduling commercials during a news broadcast. Unfortunate, but not really their fault.
I'm old enough to remember when TV would sometimes incorporate the ads into the shows (Carnation evaporated milk, for instance) or make it clear they were switching to a commercial ("And now, a word for our sponsors".) But that's not the way it's done any more, I don't think.
Telling me I need to put in a transition is one of the things that my critique group does well. I tend to write the first draft in a very spare manner, and I often need to go back & put in transitions, descriptions, etc. They aren't part of what comes easily to mind in my first draft.
E.B, you made a great point that timing is essential, especially with multiple POVs. I think it's a juggling act to keep all the pieces of a story moving in a coordinated motion so that it flows and looks effortless.
I assumed that going to a commercial without a transition was probably the result of a computer error or an intern. I'd never seen anything like that and it happened twice.
KM, I’ve recently noticed television shows incorporating products into a scene. For instance, a detective will be in a car with a co-worker who comments on the features of her new car. They might talk about gas mileage and anti-lock brakes, then return to discussing a murder investigation.
It sounds like you have a wonderful critique group!
Reading the newspaper is another experience of jarring transitions. An article about a murder can be placed immediately above a picture of smiling children.
That would be jarring, Warren. I saw an ad in a magazine for a health related product placed next to an article that exposed the product as dangerous and a scam.
Life is full of jarring events, isn't it, Kara. One would think that commercial you mention wouldn't have come right after the scene you described, but unfortunately similar things happen. A funeral is going on and a car with loud hip hop music or something similar goes by during the eulogy. I like your discussion on transitions in writing. It's something I'll pay more attention to in the future. Thanks for sharing.
Life certainly is full of jarring events, Gloria. My cousin found out she was pregnant with twins on the same day she learned that her father had cancer. The older I get, the more time I need to adjust to quick changes.
I was surprised that transitions in writing had so many functions. I'm trying to be more aware of them, too.
Transitions are critical and sometimes feel awkward when I write them. This is a great reminder.
Yes, I'm very, very big on transitions. In the newspaper business, we have to keep them short and sweet but work to keep them from being jarring. I feel like that experience has made it easier to figure out if a transition is "right" in my fiction work.
Sarah, my guess is that the fast-paced newspaper business taught you to write quickly, but accurately. It must have been a great learning experience.
Carla, at times my transitions feel awkward to me, too. Usually, they are too brief and I need to add information to make it less confusing for the reader.
I am going to save this post. I hadn't given much thought to transitions but I know I have experienced the ones that pull you out of the story by taking too long to establish the scene or POV.
I should have realized that commercials are programmed by computers, but I'm with you, Kara, it's jarring to the point of disgust when a particularly frivolous ad follows serious news.
Shari, it's certainly noticeable when transitions are missing, but I don't remember being taught much about them in any of my writing classes. It seems like there's always more (at least for me) to learn and remember.
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