Critique Technique, Part 24—Unclear Transitions

This post 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 much 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.

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 eyes 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 most often see in fiction. Non-fiction transitions include such things as addition, comparison, effect, clarification, cause, and purpose, among many others.

Transitions come in two types: “hard” or “soft.” Hard transitions are marked by a scene or chapter break. The physical 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 depends on what tense the story is being told in. If in past tense, then 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 we’ve just read, but there may be a slight shift back in time to catch us up to the same moment as we just left. Some other transitional words or phrases are: earlier, at (as in “at the same time” or “at [another location]”), after(wards), once, and before. You can find lots of other examples of transitional words and phrases on the University of Wisconsin, Wichita State University and Brigham Young University web sites.

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

So what makes a transition unclear? Usually it’s one of the things I’ve been discussing: failing to insert a scene or chapter break or transitional words or phrases, or to change 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.

When you have one of those “Wait…what?” moments:

  • Find and flag the spot where the story changed time, place, point of view, focus character, mood, tone, or topic without warning;
  • If the change is into backstory or a flashback/forward, look for the place where that diversion ends or should end to see if there is a transition there, too; and
  • Identify what kind of transitional device(s) the author should 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?


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