Critique Technique, Part 24—Unclear Transitions

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This article begins a series on flashbacks, flash-forwards, and backstory: that ancillary material that fills out a story and its characters by introducing information that doesn’t fit into the piece’s main flow. As with so many of the other subjects I’ve discussed, this topic applies to non-fiction as well as fiction.

Before I get to flashbacks, etc., though, I need a transition: this post on transitions.

What Is A Transition?

A transition is a bridge, a connection between two pieces of a story, such as when the story changes:

  • Time, that is, moves into the future or past relative to the current moment;
  • Location;
  • Point-of-view or focus character, in other words, whose perspective the story is being told through or whom it is focused on;
  • Mood or tone;
  • Topic (particularly in non-fiction); or
  • Any combination of the above.

This is not a complete list but focuses on the kinds of transitions you’ll see most often in fiction. Non-fiction transitions may be needed around such things as addition, comparison, effect, clarification, cause, and purpose, among many others.

Transition Types, Words, and Phrases

Transitions come in two types: hard or soft. Hard transitions are marked by a scene or chapter break. The presence of that break announces that a transition of some sort is about to happen.

A soft transition occurs within a chapter or scene. Instead of having a physical marker, it’s denoted by either a verb tense change, an identifying word or phrase, or both.

Verb tense changes depend on what tense the story is being told in.

  • If in past tense, a flashback or backstory usually shifts into past perfect tense: from “Bob went to the store” to “Bob had gone to the store.”
  • A present tense story would shift into past tense: from “Bob is going [or goes] to the store” to “Bob went to the store.”
  • Flash-forwards can shift into the future tense, the present tense, or even stay in the past tense but at a time ahead of where the flash-forward started. That could be really confusing, though, and would need to be marked by a transitional word or phrase as well.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” is probably one of the most famous examples of the transitional phrase—and one of the most clichéd—but notice how it marks both a clear shift in location and a subtle shift in time. “Meanwhile” indicates that something is happening at the same time as what the reader just read, but there may be a slight shift back in time to catch him up to the moment he just left.

Some other transitional words or phrases are: earlier, at (as in “at the same time” or “at [another location]”), after or afterwards, once, and before. You can find lots of other examples of transitional words and phrases in articles on the University of Wisconsin and Brigham Young University web sites.

There’s another important point here: backstory or a flashback or flash-forward needs two transitions: one into it and one back out of it.

So what makes a transition unclear? Usually it’s failing to do one of the things I’ve been discussing: not inserting a scene or chapter break or transitional words or phrases, or not changing verb tense. As a reviewer, you’ll know the author messed up a transition when you find yourself confused by an unexpected shift. It’s a good bet this happened because the author knew what had changed but forgot to signal the reader.

Questions for You

When you have one of those “Wait… what?” moments, ask yourself these questions.

  • Where did the story change time, place, point of view, focus character, mood, tone, or topic without warning?
  • Did the author introduce backstory or a flashback or flash forward?
    • If so, where did that occur?
  • Where does that diversion end or where should it end? Is a transition missing there, too?
  • What kind of transitional device(s) should the author have used?

Transitions ought to be easy to get right but they can catch even skilled writers from time to time.

What else do you look for to spot unclear transitions? After you’ve arrived at the comment box below, you’ll be ready to type your answer.

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