The current study focuses on a transition scenario in which the linear transient growth mechanism is initiated by four decaying normal modes. It is shown that the four modes, the initial structure of which corresponds to counter-rotating vortex pairs, are sufficient to capture the transient growth mechanism. More importantly, it is demonstrated that the kinetic energy growth of the initial disturbance is not the key parameter in this transition mechanism. Rather, it is the ability of the transient growth process to generate an inflection point in the wall-normal direction and consequently to make the flow susceptible to a three-dimensional disturbance leading to transition to turbulence. Because of the minimal number of modes participating in the transition process, it is possible to follow its earlier key stages analytically and to compare them with the results of direct numerical simulation. This procedure reveals the role of various flow parameters during the transition, such as the difference between symmetric and antisymmetric transient growth scenarios. Moreover, it is shown that the resulting modified base flow of the linear process is not sufficient to produce a significant localized maximum of the base-flow vorticity (i.e. a ‘strong’ inflection point), and it is only due to nonlinear effects that the base flow becomes unstable with respect to an infinitesimal three-dimensional disturbance. Finally, the physical mechanism during key stages of transition is well captured by the analytical expressions. Furthermore, the vortex dynamics during these stages is very similar to the model proposed by Cohen, Karp & Mehta (J. Fluid Mech., vol. 747, 2014, pp. 30–43) according to which streamwise variation of the initial counter-rotating vortex pair is required to generate concentrated spanwise vorticity, which together with the lift-up by the induced velocity and shear of the base flow generates packets of hairpins.