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What is a transitional scene?

A transitional scene is one that helps the reader with the process of suspension of disbelief. By that I mean it is a scene (or scenes) that moves the focus from the familiar to the fantastic.

It is easy for an author to believe that his audience will accept his words at face value, especially if he writes for an audience accustomed to dragons,spaceships and vampires. But that does not mean that the readers will accept anything that is thrown at them. The key is to earn their trust by easing them into the more implausible aspects of your work.

Therefore a transitional scene must have the following characteristics:

  1. The scene must be grounded in the familiar.
  2. It must offer a logical transition from the familiar to the absurd.
  3. Must show a principal character (although not the main character).
  4. It must occur early on, although it does not have to be the opening scene (I prefer to open with them, btw).

Lets look at a two examples, both taken from the Harry Potter series. All of the books in the series share two scenes (with some variations), one in the Dursley’s home and the other at King Cross station. Each one shows exactly what a transitional scene is all about.

Each story starts inside the Dursley’s suburban home in Little Wiggin, Surrey (UK). While you may never have seen a British suburban home (they look more like long apartment tracks than their more widely spaced North American counterparts) you will recognize the exterior of carefully manicured lawns (or gardens as they like to call it), an interior full of modern apliances, etc.

It is mundane, every day stuff. It is the realm of the familiar. Of course things don’t stay that way for long. Somebody (or something) sets things in motion that reveal that there is more to this little average home. A house elf might pop up, or owls carriying strange missive might fly through the window, even the fake electric fireplace might exploded all of the sudden.

The second scene starts off at King Crossing in London. Every year Harry takes the train from London to Hogwarts. Along the way chocolate frogs come alive, wizards walk out of their picture’s and spells are cast. By the time the scarlet train reaches the Hogsmeade station, the reader knows that they are not longer in Kansas (yep, that is another great transitional scene).

Both of these scenes place the reader in familiar territory, a place that does not require any effort by him (or her) to accept as it is. But as the scene develops the reader receives an introduction to more fantastical elements of the story.  The character or characters observe these changes along side the reader.

There are two ways of doing this. The first one may have the character(s) static while the scenery changes around them, as it often happens in the Dursley home or they can travel from Point A (the mundane location) to Point B (the fantastic location). Either way, once the reader accepts the premise of the mundane it is easy to then introduce the more fantastic elements. This can be done all at once, but a more careful aproach is prefered, as it allows the the reader to digest the changes and extend their supension of disbelief without snapping it.

The introduction of these fantastical elements must follow a sense of internal logic. In fact, one of the things that transitional scenes do is set up the rules for the narrative. Done well and the reader will have no problem accepting them.

The transitional should be centered around a principal character, if not the main character, for no other reason that readers care about people (or their equivalents) not things. It also creates a connection in the readers mind with the character. If the character reacts in a way that the readers expects to the situation, then it makes it easier to create that bond.

Finally the transitional scene has to happen in the first act (if you follow the three act structure that is). It doesn’t have to be the FIRST scene, although I try to start off with it, but it must come early enough that allows the reader to create the bridge between the world they know and the world the writer has created for them. At some point the writer must “ground” his story in the familiar before sailing off to lands unknown.

Here is an example of a great transitional scene, this time from The Matrix:

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