The Writer's Writing Guide: Transitions

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A story is a chain — of events, of realizations, of interactions. For a story to flow smoothly, the links in the chain need to lock into each other without the reader noticing. Those locks — the places where Event 1 spills into Event 2 — are transitions. But transitions are necessary for more than just the place where Event 1 meets Event 2. Transitions are necessary throughout a piece — from paragraph to paragraph, and sometimes from sentence to sentence.

This is what you can do with transitions:

1. Move the reader through time.

2. Move the reader from one setting to another.

3. Change point of view.

4. Shift mood or tone of the piece.

5. Emphasize something in comparison to something else.

6. Move from habitual action to specific scene.

7. Conclude some thought or action.

8. Create mental associations.

Each one of those kinds of transitions necessitates the use of transitional devices. Here's a review of some of these. But first, a qualifier: this list is not exhaustive. Transitions, like characters and plots, come in an infinite number of varieties. The only limitation is your own creativity. So I'll give you a few basic approaches to different kinds of transitions, but remember that you can invent your own.


1. Single-word adverbs such as: Then, Now, Suddenly, Periodically, Meanwhile, Soon, Afterward, Later, Finally, Again.

2. Adverb phrases: By and by, After a short while, The next day, Once more, Years ago, In the past; Only when Alex spoke did I realize...

3. Adverb sentences: Time passed. Ten years went by.

4. Specific time references: On my birthday; Thanksgiving Day arrived; The winter the ice never melted; Of all those book-browsing, sleepy summer days on Martha's Vineyard, it is this one particular morning that mattered most to me.

5. Indirect exposition. My father reached from his bifocals. // The last petals of her valentine's day roses drifted to the floor.

6. Space breaks/chapter breaks.


1. Single-word adverbs: Here, Beyond, Underneath, Nearby, Across.

2. Adverb phrases: Opposite to, Adjacent to, Inside the darkened house, Not until we reached the igloo did I realize

3. Place sentences: (Generally, descriptions) You could see the oak tree from the street, but not the bird's nest hidden by the leaves. // I could hear the ocean. // The room sprawled before us, its ceiling vast and cathedral-like, the eccentric Mrs. Gossmeyer waving at us from a gondola that was suspended from the rafters.

4. Match cut: I waved good-bye to Jane, turned away from her tears, turned on the ignition. I had forgotten to shut off my sprinkler; the front lawn was a lake when I got home.

5. Space breaks/chapter breaks.

Point of view: (for more detail, see chapter on Point of View)

1. Space breaks/chapter breaks.

2. Change time or place first.

3. Stay in the same time and place, but insert a description between the two points of view.

4. Connect a physical detail.

Shift mood or tone:

1. Ye olde space break/chapter break.

2. Ease into longer or shorter sentences. Longer sentences tend to make us ruminate, whereas shorter sentences tend to heighten our tension.

3. Alter physical details: The bright sky goes dark. // I stagger out of the casino, Tashida screeching behind me. "Go away," I tell her, and stumble onto the beach. She follows me anyhow, saying nothing as I fling my empty wallet at the jetty, kick off my brother's Air Jordans — like hell they brought me luck. They fly right into the water. Tashida stands crying next to me, I'm ranting, throwing my arms about. I'm not looking at her, at anything, just at the hole of my life. And then a wave slaps right over my feet, my socks, right over her high heels. And here's what's weird — it's warm. Who'd figure? March twentieth, and it feels good as July. The water just melts right into me, sending heat up my whole body like a bath. I turn to Tashida. She's got on a smile that came from nowhere. "Listen here, Dwayne," she says, "I got something I've been meaning to tell you."

Emphasize something in comparison to something else:

1. Words of addition: And, Moreover, Furthermore, Besides, Also

2. Words of contrast: But, Yet, And yet, However, Still, Otherwise, Most, Of all the boys this one was...

3. Correlatives: Both...and; Either...or; Neither...nor; Not only...but also; Whether...or.

4. Words and phrases of intensification: That is, In fact, Indeed, In short, Even, In any event.

Move from habitual action to specific scene:

Combine your transitions:

- Every morning I washed my poodle. This one morning, however, I didn't feel like getting my hands wet.

- We would make a loop from Raleigh to Ashville to Columbia and back around again, selling the coke for whatever we could get and making a total fortune. One more loop and I'd have that mortgage paid off. Then Lester went and ruined everything. Christmas Day, he said, "I got to make a detour to Kitty Hawk to see my Aunt Lilly." "Nothing doing," I told him, but he had the wheel that day, and he had already turned off the road.

Conclude some thought or action:

Words and phrases: To this end, For this purpose, Hence, Therefore, Consequently, Thus, As a result, In short, The long and short of it is,

Create mental associations:

Parallel construction: (essentially, balance your parts)

1. Balance your nouns: Not: What do CEO's know about pink slips, those who are depressed, and the welfare lines? But: What do CEO's know about pink slips, depression, and welfare lines?

2. Balance your verbs: I came, I saw, I conquered.

3. Balance phrases: The three most important elements of house-hunting are not location, location, location, but who holds the purse, who drives the car, who talks the loudest. // She had no desire to smile, no desire to care. // To know him is to love him.

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