I’m terrible at transitions. They don’t come naturally to me, and are never in my first drafts. As a result, the story kind of clunks and skips along until the end. It’s very annoying.
Once I get that first draft down, I can apply myself and highlight the areas that need smoothing out. Then I can usually figure out how to get rid of those seams.
There are two types of transitions that I can see: between scenes (aka getting your character from one place to the next, either physically or mentally), and chapter endings.
Many people have trouble with chapter endings. A lot of writers like to end a chapter on a cliffhanger so as to entice the reader to keep going. That usually works, but most often it’s only effective in the second half of the story. The tension has ratcheted up by then, and there are usually several irons in the fire that have hooked the reader.
But what about the first half of the book? There isn’t as much tension and the reader isn’t as invested in the story, so there isn’t as much incentive to keep reading. So how do we keep the reader interested?
The most common mistake I see writers make is wrapping up a chapter so well that it kills the forward momentum of the story. If there is no hint as to what might happen next, then the book is too easy to set down. When you don’t have a suitable cliffhanger, you can still introduce elements that keep the reader questioning. Or, at the very least, end the chapter with a direction that the main character might take. If the reader has an inkling of what could happen next, then it’ll be harder to put the book down.
For me, this is harder because there is no rule of thumb. No solid rule of thumb, anyway, since there are so many different kinds of scenes to transition between. I’ll cover the two most common ones here: getting from place to place, and the passage of time.
It’s a bit easier to transition from place to place because you can include the traveling in the story. Especially if the main character needs to mentally sort some things out on the way. If there isn’t a clean way to include the traveling, though, then the simplest way is to describe the new setting. To keep it from sounding like a laundry list, focus on how the new setting affects the character. This does two things: it gives the reader a good visual so he knows where we are, and it also sets the tone for the upcoming scene. Both get the reader prepared in good ways.
The passage of time is a bit trickier. Most often, I see writers continue on with the story as if it’s only the next day, but really an entire week has gone by. Or, the writer throws in a quick sentence telling us how much time has gone by, but it’s not in the most effective place.
Here’s how I see this kind of transition. Before you get into the scene, mention how much time has gone by. If the reader gets several paragraphs into the scene and then you spring on him that a week or a month has gone by, he has to stop the story in his head, mentally adjust, and then try to get back into it. He may even need to reread everything, depending on what kind of reader he is. If he knows from the start how much time has passed, then all of this can be avoided.
I think the easiest way to write the passage of time is at the beginning of a new chapter. At that point, the reader is already expecting some kind of change, so he’ll be open and ready to adjust to whatever you lay out for him. If you slap a few extra weeks into the middle of a chapter, he may or may not be able to roll with it. It depends on the story and scene, of course, since there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing. :)
Anyway, these are, for the most part, what I focus on when I’m smoothing out my transitions. It’s not always this clear cut, but that’s a common circumstance in writing. :) How do you write your transitions?