Transitions: The secret to excellent story flow

by Gina Burgess

She looked at his expressionless face and wondered what he was thinking.

She remembered that key, and the box it opened.

Bernice might know. Bernice was the neighborhood gossip and tidbit collector.

Betty tried to quit thinking about Bob to no avail. She looked out of her window and saw his car.

The fridge was empty, and so was the pantry.

Those are examples of transitions that I just made up, so don’t be too critical, please.

The first one is a transition for a head hop within a scene.

I personally dislike head hops. I really like a smooth story flow with one POV, but when done well with good transitions, I don’t even notice a head hop within a scene. The transition is there, and it’s good, and it helps the hop become more like an easy step than a jarring hop. Head jumps take the reader to a different POV in a different scene. Usually the switch happens at the beginning of a new chapter. Without a transition, the head jump is like slamming my head into an airbag in a car wreck. Oh, so painful.

Using a transition to lead into a head jump from one scene to the next gives continuity and even flow without disturbing the pace of the story. With transitions, I know exactly where I am in the story and whose POV I’m viewing. Easy Peasy.

The second example above transitions the reader into a flashback. The reader is gently prepared to go back in time to see why the box is so important to the story. Nothing wrong with well written flashbacks as long as there is good transition and the flashback is crucial to the story. Otherwise, I think I said this before, I hate them.

The third example is flexible enough to either indicate a head jump to Bernice, or a scene change of going to Bernice and finding out if she really does know the needed information.

The fourth example is the same: head jump to Bob or scene change to the car outside. Or a switch in Betty’s thoughts from Bob to events that happened in the car – another flashback perhaps.

The last one is rather ambiguous as a transition. From here the character could wallow in hunger or go to the grocery store where the robber changes her life forever by shooting her and nicking her spine. This is where a transition is actually the scene Set Up. You are helping the reader to suspend reality/belief, and settle into a plausible story flow where characters have reasonable motivations for their actions/reactions.

You might need to think about that for a moment.

Fantasy and sci-fi writers need this kind of plausibility more than contemporary or historical fiction writers. It’s the suspension of belief factor that helps authors creatively draw readers into the suspension of reality. Most authors would not consider — The great earthquake of 2025 shifted the flow of the Mississippi River — a transition. It is much needed information so the reader understands why Biloxi, Mississipp is 12 feet under muddy, Mississippi River water. It isn’t a flashback. It’s a bridge of information from one scene to another to make sense of what is happening in the reader’s mind.

What was the last transition that you’ve written? Do you even notice them? Transitions are mostly like missing words to an editor as in the sentence: He stumbled as he ran for train station.

How many times did you read that sentence? Did your brain automatically supply the word the? Did the sentence falter in your brain while you figured out the word the was missing?

Transitions, just like common words, are never noticed unless they are missing. When a transition is not there, the missing part creates a dam making a great story flow screech to a halt; I know mixed metaphors, sorry. The reader is jerked out of the story so he or she can reread the sentence or section of sentence adding the word in, or causing the reader to lurch and stumble into the next scene trying to figure out where in the story he is or how what she just read relates to what was previously read.

An excellent example of that kind of lurch and stumble is in John Gresham’s book The Pelican Brief. The first six chapters (I think six) we are introduced to, and experience the assassination of six judges. By the fourth one, I was bored and skipped the next two chapters – and didn’t miss one single thing for the story to make sense. Any one of those chapters would have been a great start to an interesting story–but not six of them.

So tell me, when was the last time you actually noticed a transition (not the words like and, furthermore, nevertheless, etc.), but the tool used like a needle stitching scenes and sequels together to make a work of genius?

What are some great or unusual transitions that you’ve noticed? Give us some examples, please.

8 thoughts on “Transitions: The secret to excellent story flow”

  1. In my novel Rescue Mission, as an experiment, I made an ensemble cast of seven, started them all as stereotypes and then gave each an individual chapter, to make them unique and well-understood by the readers. US Review of Books gave it a ‘recommended’ rating. But each transition was done at the start of a chapter, and it was made clear from the first sentence whose head we’d jumped into. My favorite transitions were in the music for the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light.”

    1. Using WordPress magic, I fixed the typo, alan 🙂

      So how did you feel writing out of 7 different heads? Did you write each POV about one incident?

      I’ve seen that done before and it was an interesting read, but not the kind of story that I’d read very often 🙂

    1. Thanks, Jann. Usually, they are kinda hard to spot because we just don’t notice them. It’s like that old “game” where you have to count the number of “f” letters in a paragraph. There are actually 6, but most people only count 4. The 4 make the f-sound in the word, but the other two make a v-sound as in OF. Our brains are spectacular things. They try hard to make sense out of chaos. That’s another reason we know God created us — God is not the author of chaos.

  2. But He didn’t create the chaos! Isn’t our enemy the author of confusion?

    Back to Gina’s article, it’s only by leaving a piece of writing alone for a while, then printing it out again (ideally on paper of a different color and after a week or more), AND THEN reading it out loud to someone else, that I can best see where more transitions are needed.

    1. Very good strategy, Margaret.

      Things are put in much better perspective once we let our writing set awhile — sometimes we find gold and sometimes we find eggs 🙂

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