Time Transition


When you speak about writing and how-to’s, people tend to immediately contradict you, because in writing there is rarely the right way to do things or the only way to do things. Writing is a form of expression and we all express ourselves in different ways. So this is just a way I do it and it may or may not work for you.


There are several types of transitions. Let’s start with one and go down the list.

Time-compressing transitions:

Most of your manuscript will consist of scenes. A scene is immediate. In the scene, the events are shown as they unfold, in detail. Typically you don’t summarize in the scene. (This is where “show don’t tell” comes in, but I hate that rule so we’re not going to mention it again.) When you are daydreaming, and this really cool interaction between your characters occurs to you, so vivid you can practically see it, and you sit there and go, “Yeah!”, you are probably dreaming of a scene.

Another way to think about the scene: you should be able to picture every moment of the scene as if you’re watching a movie.

But some events take place off-camera, between the scenes. Time passes, changes take place, and we need to compress what happened and move on to the next scene. We have to summarize the boring bits.

Time-compression transition is a summary. That’s the nature of this beast.

Example: Opening of the Star Wars movies is always a transition. It’s a summary of the events. The exchange where Luke fixes R2D2 is a scene.

Most writers don’t consciously think about the scenes and transitions in those terms. I don’t really approach my narrative and decide, “I’ve had a scene, now I am going to stick a transition in there.” Most of the times the scene-transition-scene progression occurs naturally, as you move through the story, because you are picking and choosing: here is an interesting bit, people might like to see that, and here is a boring bit, I can just summarize it and move on. But I found that for me knowing the mechanics of how it works made me a better writer.

So we’ve identified what is a scene and what is a time-compressing transition. Let’s see how to make that transition happen.

The key to an effective time-compressing transition is the change that takes place in the character. Think of the character’s emotions as a string. As long as you hold on to that string, you can slide all sort of beads on it.

Let’s do a very simple example:

Mary Sue heroically went to her job, but her baby kept her up at night, and she has a headache. What changes in Mary Sue’s from emotional point of view? Well, she came in determined to work but got fed-up and left. We need to move Mary Sue:

Emotionally: from resigned to her fate to fed-up.

Physically: don’t have to worry about it for the time being as our transition starts and ends at her work.

Time-wise: Morning to lunch.

As Mary Sue walked to her cubicle, the headache scratched at the back of her skull. Her head felt too heavy, her eyelids wanted to close and an annoying hum filled her ears. By sheer willpower she forced herself to concentrate on the TPS reports, growing more and more annoyed with each new sheet of paper she discovered in her in box. By lunch her headache had matured into a blinding migraine. Finally, she could stand it no longer and clocked out.

Why does it work? Because it all revolves around Mary’s emotional state and her emotional progress. As long as you can hold on to your character’s emotion, you can compress centuries and minutes with equal ease, transitioning your character wherever whenever.

Let’s do a more complex example:

Picklednose is a necromancer who is accompanying a prince on a voyage across a sea. He starts out feeling okay, but at the end of the voyage he is driven out of his skull and is very annoyed, because we need him to do something rash in the next scene.

We need to move Picklednose:

Emotionally: from apprehensive to annoyed to no end

Physically: from one coast to another

Time-wise: to two weeks later.

From the moment Picklednose stepped onto the wooden deck of La Bella, rolling and rocking with the pulse of the sea, he knew he would come to regret it. The ship was never still. It careened, vibrated, and listed, up and down, side to side, like some drunken whore at the end of the night. The cold spray dampened his clothes and his sheets, until he no longer remembered what it was like to be dry. But the salt, the salt was worst of all. The bitter, sharp salt of the sea was everywhere: it spoiled his food, it caked in his hair, it formed a grainy layer on his skin and made his eyes water. And to add insult to his misery, Prince Charming loved it all. He practically bounded out of his bunk to scurry up the mast or to pull on some damn rope, reveling in grunt work with infuriating idiotic enthusiasm.

By the time La Bella finally pulled into port, Picklenose was sure of two things: first, he hated the sea and the sea returned his hate and second, Prince Charming was completely and hopelessly daft.

Works? Works. Why? Because we are holding on to the emotional thread in our poor Picklednose.

Now it’s time to get really complicated. Let’s take Bob. Bob escapes from prison. He saws through the bars, he scales the wall on the sheet-ropes he had hidden in the belly of a sculpture he was making for the warden’s wife. We showed him crawling through the mud and rain and disappearing into the jungle.

Now we need to pick up the story later, let’s say six months later. What changes take place in Bob emotionally? He starts out euphoric – he escaped, he is out. He ends with the deep desire to kill the man who put him into prison. Let’s call this man Poopsie. So Bob ends up stalking Poopsie half a year later at Poopsie’s Italian villa.

Emotionally we need to get Bob from “Omg, Eff-u, suckers! I’m freee!” to “I’m going to nuke that Poopsie bastard if it’s the last thing I do.”

Physically we need to move him from the jungle of Guatemala to Italy.

Temporally we need to move him from February to August.

Let’s do it:

For three weeks he was lost in the rain-soaked verdant riot of the jungle. At first fear drove him, and then, slowly, as days trickled by and he realized he had eluded the capture, euphoria claimed him. For a few blissful hours, hidden in the narrow cave he had found in a side of a hill, Bob was truly happy. He was so happy, he would have been content to die. Then fear returned again, but this time with a sharp edge of resentment and he was on the move, cradling that resentment, nurturing it until it grew into smoldering anger against the man who did this to him. When he finally emerged, starved, filthy, battered, onto a muddy road leading to a small village, his anger had grown into an all consuming fury, and the villagers shied from him and crossed themselves, muttering of a demon they glimpsed in his eyes.

He had nothing to trade for a ride and so he walked from one village to another, until he reached Zunil, and from there he caught a ride to Guatemala City with a group of British tourists. The moment he entered the airport bathroom, reached behind the toilet, and felt the cold metal of the locker key he had taped there months before should have been bliss. Yet even as he pulled the duffel full of cash from the locker, Bob felt no joy, no relief, only anger. It at once fueled and devoured him, and Bob knew with absolute certainty that until he saw the life fade in Poopsie’s eyes, he would never be free.

Five months later Bob sat at a small gelateria on Italian coast, working on a cone of rich Lipari gelato. Time had crystallized his rage into an icy shard. Had he encountered Poopsie when he had boarded the plane to the States, he would’ve beaten him to death then and there and no force on earth would be able to stop him. But the ice taught him control and patience, and for the time being he was content to merely imagine breaking a leg off his chair, crossing the street to where Poopsie lingered by the art storefront, and driving it into the man’s eye socket.

Why does it work? Because it’s all about Bob’s emotions. People are way more interesting then events by themselves.

Now let’s go back and look why we picked Star Wars as an example. Because really in this particular case opening scene-transition is very easy to identify. Every transition I had written here is also very clear for the purposes of example. They stand there very politely holding a little flag, “Hi, I’m transition!”

In written narrative transitions mutate and take all sorts of shape. They are disguised, they are presented with subtlety and a lot of times you don’t even notice they exist.

Here is an example from Nora Roberts.

:insert fanfare here:

(While we’re listening to fanfare, let me get something out of the way. There is a tendency among some members of SF/F to sneer at romance writers. This will show you why you shouldn’t. Nora Roberts sells my entire print-run weekly. In hardback. There is a reason for that.)

Onto the example:

When one of the most famous faces on the planet was beaten to a bloody, splintered pulp, it was news. Even in New York City. When the owner of that famous face punctured several vital organs of the batterer with a fillet knife, it was not only news, it was work.

Getting an interview with the woman who owned the face that had launched a thousand consumer products was a goddamn battle.

Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb, Origin in Death

When I grow up, I want to write like Nora. Look how elegant it is: the character is never mentioned, but you know what is going on in her head: first, she heard about it, then she realized she was assigned to the murder, and now she is frustrated because she obviously tried to interview the victim of the battering several times, and got nowhere. And none of this is directly mentioned, but we know it anyway. Right away the reader is engaged. Isn’t it pretty? It compressed time, events, and emotional change and it’s done so smoothly you would never notice, unless you were anal like me and looking for a good transition example.


  1. says

    Ilona-You are my hero. You have no idea how much I needed to read something like this. I’m in the midst of first edits for my very first (finished) manuscript and at the moment I think I’m crap. This is extremely helpful in helping me get my transitions done correctly. Thank you!!!

  2. Yodamom says

    Thank you, my teen daughter’s love the examples you post. We use them as writing lessons . I wish you could see the fun they have working on their stories using the examples you have posted. ; )

  3. kyrias says

    I’m so glad you used Nora Roberts as an example. I personally think she’s a lovely, if not outright brilliant writer and it gets wearisome to hear people sneer at her simply because *gasp* she writes romance.
    Sometimes I think it’s just jealousy of how much she makes, but that just be my petty side speaking.