Ecological systems can switch between alternative dynamic states. For example, the species composition of the community can change or nutrient dynamics can shift, even if there is little or no change in underlying environmental conditions. Such switches can be abrupt or more gradual, and a growing number of studies examine the transient dynamics between one state and another—particularly in the context of anthropogenic global change. Hastings et al. review current knowledge of transient dynamics, showing that hitherto idiosyncratic and individual patterns can be classified into a coherent framework, with important general lessons and directions for future study.