Welcome to the beginning of my desperate attempt to keep posting twice a week while also doing NaNoWriMo! Most of this month's posts are going to be about writing techniques, because that's what's on my brain at the moment, so buckle in because this is going to be a rough ride.
Concerning transitions, I'm going to be a bit ruthless about this. I have very strong opinions, but I will do my best to make them a little less overbearing than they could be, because I know you're all nice people and you don'd deserve that kind of abuse.
To start, there are a lot of shortcuts we learn when we are young and new to the world of writing, and one of the most common shortcuts I've seen is what we'll call the "transition gap." That is, you want to just skip to the next interesting bit, so rather than actually writing out a transition sentence, you plug in an extra empty line, or an actual line on the document, or a few asterisks to mark the divide, and then just keep going.
Another would be the token transition, a la Spongebob Squarepants (may I never type that name again as long as I live) that's basically the omnipresent narrator inserting a "some hours later..." between lines.
The final transition shortcut is sort of a subspecies of the transition gap, where the gap is inserted, but a character makes a comment about what happened in the meantime, or the narrator devotes a line to catching the reader up on where they've just been skipped to.
I can hear you saying "But if those are all shortcuts, then what's a real transition? Does it even exist?" (I can hear it because I'm saying it, too.)
I want to note (just like with the typing thing a few days ago) there's nothing wrong with using these shortcuts. They're not bad, and I would be very amiss if I was to try to prevent people from using them at all. But as with technological aids to increase ease of access to a difficult world, these shortcuts are only bad if they're harmful to the good habits you formed when learning the foundations of the craft.
So back to the question - "What is a real transition?"
Well, let's start with what a transition is supposed to do.
A "transition" is "the passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another." In other words, a transition line should imply or state the link between the passage above and the passage below, making it clear what's being skipped over.
For example, in Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (Chapter 2: In Which Sophie Is Compelled To Seek Her Fortune) we find a paragraph that ends like this:
"I'm not grumbling. But I'm surely due to have a third encounter, magical or not. In fact, I insist on one. I wonder what it will be."
Then, rather that describing Sophie's long, boring walk in the interim, the author skips ahead to the next interesting bit with a transition line.
The third encounter came toward the end of the afternoon when Sophie had worked her way quite high into the hills.
The line describes the link between where we were and where we are now, so no one is left wondering "what the heck just happened and who's this guy and why should I care?"
That's not always the way it's done, though, as you well know. Tolkien, in his Lord of the Rings, often spent a paragraph in transition between this point and that, sometimes more. Or in Peter and the Starcatchers, instead of using transition lines at all, the authors chose to throw in a chapter break wherever a transition would traditionally be used, in essence making each chapter a single scene. (There is at least one chapter (more, I believe) that's only a single page long, because that's how long the scene is.)
In conclusion, there's nothing wrong with using transition gaps or token transitions, but I believe it's important to be able to write a decent transition line, because it's a tool in your belt as a writer that shouldn't be discarded. There are times when those lines can make the difference between a clear and impactful scene, and the scene that loses its audience halfway through because they have no idea what's going on.