Definition of Transition
In literature, a transition is used to signal a change in the story by way of a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph. Punctuation can also, at times, signal a transition. These transitions may be anything from a change in setting or time in the narrative, to a change in perspective or point-of-view character, to changes in the mood or tone of the piece. Transitions must happen in all works of literature, as change is necessary in every plot and act of character development. The definition transition can also refer to changes of more and less significance; for example, in a Shakespearean tragedy there are transitions in setting and time from one scene to the next but also a transition from rage to remorse at the conclusion of the play.
Common Examples of Transition
Transition is a very familiar concept in every part of life. We experience large and small transitions every day, from a transition between home and work to transitions in life stages such as birth and death of family members. We also linguistic transitions in everyday speech when we tell stories, using words like “first,” “then,” and “finally.” Here are some examples of transition from famous speeches in which the orator changed tack or tone:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
—Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream” speech
It is this moment in his speech that Martin Luther King Jr. moves past the difficulties and struggles that he has just acknowledged the audience has experienced to a much more hopeful tone.
Nevertheless, our thankfulness at the escape of our Army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonizing week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.
—Winston Churchill “We shall fight on the beaches” speech
Churchill’s speech, which ends with the famous repetition of “we shall fight” includes many transitions as he illustrates the recent events in Dunkirk and the invasion of France by the German army. He wanted to inform the nation and the world of the success of the mission, but, using the word “nevertheless” he transitions to showing the dire position his country was still in.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.
—John F. Kennedy “We choose to go to the moon” speech
President Kennedy was trying to affect a shift in the priorities of the nation through showing the transitions that all of humankind had gone through and showing a path to the future.
Significance of Transition in Literature
Transitions are an integral part of every work of literature, whether a poem, play, or novel. They are necessary for providing an internal cohesiveness and logic to a narrative, by moving the reading smoothly from one sentence, idea, scene, or chapter to the next. While transitions are less obvious in poems, they are equally necessary as they signal a shift in the consciousness or focus of the narrator that leads to the profound observations that give purpose to verse. Transitions can be explicit or subtle, and may be as straightforward as chapter breaks or double spaces between a paragraph or stanza to signal that a new thought is being explored. The change from the climax to the denouement is also an example of transition.
Examples of Transition in Literature
OTHELLO: I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.
(Othello by William Shakespeare)
In the tragic conclusion of William Shakespeare’s Othello, the main character Othello finally realizes Iago’s treachery and his own crime of murdering his innocent wife. He is speaking to the other men who have rushed to the scene, and asking them to relate the events truthfully to others. This is a transition from Othello’s rage at Desdemona, who he had presumed to have been unfaithful to him, to his utter remorse. He asks the other men not to judge him more harshly than he deserves and speaks the famous line, “Then must you speak / Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.” This transition leads to his own suicide stemming from his new sense of remorse.
Everything I touch
with tenderness, alas,
pricks like a bramble.
(Unnamed haiku by Kobayaski Issa)
Haiku poems, which became popular starting in 9th century Japan, are very short yet must include some sort of turn of mood or consciousness by the third line. The above poem is by one of the most famous haiku poets, Issa, who wrote in the late 18th to early 19th century. The first two lines of the haiku seem to connote a positive mood, yet the the third line is a sudden and unexpected transition to a negative outlook.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)
The above transition example comes from the first stanza of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven.” The narrator starts off alone, tired, almost asleep, when he is worked by tapping at his chamber door. The transition in this poem comes in the form of the word “suddenly,” which then leads to the descent of the narrator into complete madness as a raven enters the room and refuses to leave.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.
(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)
The above excerpt is the very first paragraph of García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. García Márquez chose a very interesting way to open his novel, as though in the midst of a transition. The reader is introduced to one of the main characters, Colonel Aureliano Buendía in two stages of his life. We know from the first line that he will one day in the future face a firing squad, while we also learn that in his childhood he lived in a world “so recent that many things lacked named.” The three first words of the novel show the dual nature of this novel, the complexity of time, and a transition from pre-modernity to modernity.
Test Your Knowledge of Transition
1. Which of the following statements is the best transition definition?
A. A word, punctuation mark, or paragraph which signals some sort of change in a text.
B. A descriptive paragraph that sets the scene.
C. The climax of a work of literature.
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2. Why does an author use transitions?
A. To signal the permanence of something.
B. To show a change in time, perspective, or setting.
C. To develop a character.
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3. Which of the following words might signal a transition in a work of literature?
A. I, II, and III
B. I and III
C. I and II
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