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Transitional Words and Phrases in Fiction: 4 Writing Tips

Transitional words and phrases in fiction, as in nonfiction, aid smooth movement between paragraphs, chapters, scenes, ideas, locations, times and characters. Effective transitions act as bridges that move the reader logically from one point to another, unobtrusively, without awkwardness. They may use special "transition" words, or they may not, so I've included examples of both methods here. The secret to good transitions is to make them so natural that the reader hardly notices them. The following transitional techniques will help.

Transitional Words and Phrases that Signal Time

However your story unfolds in time (over hours, days, months or years) perhaps the most common type of transition is some transition word or phrase that indicates the amount of time that has passed, such as: A week later, Tom boarded a bus for Winnipeg. In his wonderful novel Brooklyn, Colm Toibin uses this type of transition at the start of many new scenes, with examples such as: One day at dinnertime Rose... (p. 22)

"One day" is non-specific, but nevertheless indicates that a number of days have passed and that the new scene takes place at dinnertime. In another example from Brooklyn a new scene opens, One morning, when she had been there for three weeks and was on her fourth... (65). From this we learn that the scene takes place in the morning and that three weeks have passed since the character started her new job.

Other examples:

  • At the same time
  • Afterwards
  • For two weeks
  • Meanwhile
  • At night
  • For a month he did not visit, see, plan, etc.
  • In the morning
  • After lunch
  • The next day
  • Later that evening
  • When the sun sank
  • The following Tuesday
  • A week later
  • Months passed
  • At the appointed time
  • The next time they met
  • When they arrived home
  • As they approached
  • In the year 2004
  • It took a month, but
  • On the first sunny day

Transitional Words and Phrases that Shift Location

Another transitional method is to shift to a new location for the next scene. In Brooklyn, we find three good examples of this. On page 33, the scene opens with: Rose took the day off from work and travelled with her to Dublin. This indicates that the scene has shifted from their hometown to Dublin.

At the top of page 38, another scene opens: They moved around the city centre, slowly becoming more relaxed... This indicates that the scene takes place in Liverpool and that the protagonist, Eilis, and her brother walk around the city, as they slowly get comfortable with each other. Then, halfway through page 39, another new scene begins: It was difficult to carry her suitcases down the narrow stairs of the liner and Eilis had to move sideways on the corridor as she followed the signs that led to her berth.

The previous scene ends with a conversation between Eilis and her brother, so this single sentence at the start of this new scene serves as a cleverly written transition that not only indicates her new location (on board the ocean liner) but also shows a shift in her mood, as she must suddenly cope on her own in this foreign setting. Study the novel Brooklyn for numerous examples of skillful writing transitions.

Other examples:

  • They boarded the plane, train, bus, etc.
  • The hotel was
  • She walked alone into the dark streets
  • When the train stopped
  • She took a position in
  • The cabin was situated
  • Farther along Barnett Street
  • The taxi inched through traffic
  • They sat hunched on the steps of the
  • Across from the temple
  • When they reached
  • In the hospital corridor

Transitional Words and Phrases that Change Point of View

In a story with multiple points of view, transitional words may be used to move smoothly from one character's point of view to another. For example, two characters may meet on a bus and begin a conversation in one character's POV. When the scene ends and the second character gets off the bus, the story may continues in his or her point of view, thus creating a natural transition from one perspective to another.

At the end of a chapter, a character named Sophia may plan to visit her grandmother. The chapter then ends with Sophia getting in her car to make the drive to her grandmother's house. The next chapter might open in the grandmother's point of view at the house, when she opens the door to let Sophia in. Chapter transitions may or may not use transitional phrases, but the general feel is that of change as a result of some prior happening.

Other examples:

  • In spite of his father's warning, Joseph carried the...
  • Although Alexa was twenty-eight when her father died...
  • When Samantha woke...
  • In reality, Jason's car was old, and black and hot inside
  • Regardless of the heat, he had waited in line three hours for tickets
  • To celebrate, Maxine purchased a bottle of ...
  • Despite his need to see her again, he would leave in the morning
  • When the time came, Thomas met his guests in the hallway
  • On the whole, Alice enjoyed being alone
  • As usual, Jackson was late. He rushed ...
  • Later, they sat at a small table in the corner, and Eliza ...
  • Because they had no future, she ...
  • Robert had a restless night
  • Geneva sometimes wondered why ...

Transitional Words and Phrases that Alter the Pace

You may also write transitions using speech or actions that accelerate or slow the pace of your story. For example, John bolted from the car and up the front steps of the house, has a much different effect than this opening: John slipped from the car and checked to make sure all the doors were locked. He stopped to watch a woman pushing a baby carriage pass, on the sidewalk, and then he made his way up the front steps. In this manner, a transition will not only signal a leap in time, but also a change in urgency or mood.

Other examples:

  • Not daring to look back, she ran toward the lights (quickens the pace)
  • To avoid them, he shuffled from room to room (slows)
  • "Under the new rules," he drawled (slows)
  • "You silly fool," he whispered. "Do you want to get us killed?" (quickens)
  • He pushed to the front of the crowd to see (quickens)
  • As a consequence, the weight of the news bore down on him (slows)
  • "We have hours to wait," she said (slows)
  • With languid ease, Blanche rolled over (slows)
  • Peter ducked behind the wall and held his breath (quickens)

Ineffective Writing Transitions

There are also a number of ways beginners write transitions that attract the wrong kind of attention. One common error is to tell readers too much. For example, if one scene ends with Rachel deciding to see her sister to ask for a loan, the next scene should not begin: When Rachel arrived at her sister's house to borrow the thousand dollars she needed to pay Max by midnight...

Write only what moves the plot forward. Some transitions are unnecessary. For example, if someone plans to fly from one city to another, a transitional phrase such as They drove her to the airport and waited as she checked her luggage is unnecessary. Unless something important will happen at the airport, it is better to make filmic cuts, jumping from one location to another with a transitional phrase, avoiding all the details between, such as: Eight hours later, she had cleared customs and was settled in the back of a Paris limousine.

The options for writing effective transitions are numerous. Read widely and develop the habit of analyzing how other writers move between scenes, and which transitional words they use. Then aim to develop fresh constructions of your own.

Exercise

Review a novel you admire and look at the opening of any chapter after the first one. Does it open with a transitional word or phrase?

Now examine two back-to-back scenes and note which transitional words and phrases join them. What makes these transitions effective?

Related Links

A long and well organized list of transition words from the University of Wisconsin Writing Center

And from Michigan State University



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