Whenever you move along from one scene to the next, you need to use a transition. After all, you can't expect your reader to spend every moment with the character from the time she wakes up to the time she goes to bed. You need to select the scenes you wish to include, and then you must make the gaps seem logical. To do this, you use transitions.
There are a number of different types of transitions you can use to move from one scene to the next. At its essence, a transition is simply a way to notify the reader that a passage of time has occurred. The trick is to do it in such a fashion that it is obvious to the reader that it's happened so the reader won't feel lost as he or she continues reading.
Jessica dropped the letter in the mailbox. The next afternoon, she realized that she'd forgotten to put a stamp on it.
Kind of rough, isn't it? When making such a time transition, you need to make it obvious to the reader that a time shift is coming up. Consider the following:
Jessica dropped the letter in the mailbox. It wasn't until the next afternoon as she rearranged things on her desk that she realized she'd forgotten to put a stamp on it.
Your job as a writer is to make it easy on the reader, allowing the story to unfold in the reader's mind. The use of transitions serves to telegraph to the reader that a time shift is coming up, which makes the time shift easier to accept in the reader's mind. Without effective transitions, you risk confusing the reader, who may have to spend some extra time trying to figure out what just happened.
Here are some common transition forms you can use to shift time in your story. For maximum effect, learn how to use all of them; never rely on one or two. The more you mix and match, the more varied and interesting your writing will be.
A hiatus is a series of blank lines separating paragraphs. The initial paragraph after the hiatus will begin in the new time period, and the reader will automatically know that the shift in time is occurring because of the “break” in the page. If your hiatus falls at the end of a page, you need to indicate the break with a series of three asterisks centered in the middle of the break. Be careful not to overuse this device; the hiatus should only be used when there is a clear break between scenes.
If a series of actions occur that aren't integral to the story line, you can quickly gloss over them in one sentence, just to fill the reader in on what has taken place. If no important action occurs during the activities, you can sum everything up and continue.
Bill managed to accomplish all of the errands on his to-do list before he got home.
This way, you don't need to show that Bill went to the dry cleaners, stopped at the grocery store, visited the gym, or any of the other mundane yet necessary things he accomplished.
You can also use stock phrases like “the next day,” “that afternoon,” “the next morning,” or broader passages of time, such as “the next month” to convey time. Use these sparingly, as too many will make it seem like you're telling the reader instead of showing.
You can even create an entire, but short, scene to convey that time has passed. Using this type of transition lets you elaborate upon your setting and deliver more information about your character. Consider the following:
Phil looked up the walk but didn't enter the yard. The house looked empty at the moment. Continuing down the street, he watched the sun slowly begin to set. Shouldn't take too much longer, he figured. He circled the next block leisurely, watching as blue-collar workers pulled into their suburban driveways after a long hard day of work. Kids happily ran from houses, greeting their fathers, leaving Phil with a small tinge of longing for the family he never had. Eventually, he circled back, coming again to the house. The lights were now on, and he proceeded up the walk toward the door.
Reading this short passage, the reader wonders why Phil is at that particular house and what he expects to find there. The reader is also introduced to the surroundings, understanding that the house is situated in a blue-collar, working-class neighborhood where a number of families live. The reader is also left wondering about Phil's past and is given the opportunity to empathize with Phil's feelings about the family he never had. Rather than glossing over the waiting period, you can use this type of scenic transition to allow reader identification to occur.
When your characters speak about doing something, it's not much of a logical jump for the reader to expect that they actually start doing it.
“Let's get some lunch,” Dick said.
“Sounds great!” Linda said as she grabbed her purse.
The restaurant was packed, but they managed to find a table toward the back.
Now, the reader is carried along with Dick and Linda without having to get in the car with them, drive the distance, park, and go through all of the other steps that really aren't integral to the story. Such transitions are economical because the reader is quickly carried along with the flow of the story without even realizing that a transition has occurred.
Habitual actions can also be used to signify the passing of time. The nice thing about this is that they tend to be economical, conveying the time passage in very few words:
Bill went through four cigarettes before the door to the waiting room opened.
Of course, smoking isn't the only habit you can use. Cups of coffee, sticks of gum, or even the number of magazines read can signify time passage just as effectively.