Tuesday Tip

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Last Tuesday, I talked about major time gaps in your story. This week, let’s talk about shorter ones: scene transitions. Between your novel’s beginning and end, there are dozens or hundreds of beginnings and ends. These could be new paragraphs or new chapters. How they begin and end is just as important as how your story begins or ends.

In the movies, it’s easy to show the transition from one place or event to another: Cue the montage music or fade out. But in books, we don’t have musical or visual cues, only our words to convey the passage of place and time.

Transitions should clearly connect one scene to another. Think of it like building a bridge. You want a good sturdy bridge, not one of those rickety wooden things that hangs over a 500 foot drop.

Why you need scene transitions

  • change viewpoint
  • change location
  • change mood
  • change place
  • to move the narrative forward
  • skip unimportant events
  • advance time

How to Transition: Ending a scene

 Before you move on to the next scene, make sure you finish the prior scene. Don’t leave your readers standing in the middle of your bridge–get them across. By finish, that doesn’t mean you have to wrap up all the action, it just means the scene needs to have accomplished something. What needs to happen in this scene? Why were you writing it to begin with? New scenes aren’t only used to establish a new place or time. Sometimes, they establish a character’s new frame of mind. Perhaps in order to end the scene, your character needs to have a change of heart or a realization.

Beginning the next scene

Usually a new scene occurs in a new time, place, or point of view. It can even have a new tone. These are clear ways of letting the reader know you’ve moved on. Establish the time, place, tone, and POV early so your reader is oriented. 

At the beginning of the new scene, there are several ways to let the reader know what has changed.

  1. Type out the date (if a major time gap) or the name of a city or place.
  2. Use the narration to establish the new setting or time, e.g., “that morning,” One sentence might be all it takes, or you can use the first paragraph to describe the new time, place, character, etc. Be quick and concise. Anything over a paragraph or two could result in info dumping. 
  3. Starting a new chapter is the easiest way to establish a scene change. The reader expects a transition at the beginning of a new chapter. Don’t think you can get away with a new Chapter every time you change your setting.
  4. Use symbols between scenes. I’ve seen this done several ways. How you do it may be based on your preference or your publisher. The most common symbol is the asterisk though scrivener uses the pound symbol.
  5. Use an extra space to divide scenes. This is how it commonly looks in published manuscripts. I’ve noticed in some books the first word is indented. In others it’s not. In some, the first words are even capitalized to make the transition clear.

Cliff hangers

As writers, we’re tempted to wrap everything up neatly at the end of a scene or chapter. This gives the reader a break, a place to put the bookmark. I’m not a fan of soft, neatly packaged scene endings. Will the reader return, or is this the final resting place of the bookmark?  Don’t wrap everything up. End on a beat. Keep the suspense. Leave your chapters at a cliff hanger. Think of Game of Thrones. I haven’t finished reading the books, but every episode ends at a cliff hanger, especially the last episode of each season. This compels viewers to buy the next DVD or keep paying their cable bill in order to find out what happens next. Do this in your book. They’ll have to keep turning the page to find out what happens. This ensures your reader will finish your book and purchase your next one.

HInt: Don’t take this too far. Don’t add suspense for the heck of it. This is what is commonly called false suspense. Don’t have your character be presumed dead only to wake up in the next chapter. Your reader will feel cheated and lied to.

Things to avoid

  1. Lazy transitions
    1. My least favorite transition is where a character goes unconscious and wakes up somewhere new (often in bed away from the danger). People don’t usually black out that long, maybe several minutes tops. I will forgive this type of transition, however, if the character wakes up in the same place. Remember that episode of The Walking Dead when Darryl goes unconscious. When he wakes up, it’s still the same time of day, no one has rescued him, and his boot is being gnawed on by a zombie. That is a great way to keep the suspense instead of derailing the scene from the action.
    2. Character goes to bed or wakes up. Similar to the above only instead of false suspense, you get no suspense.
    3. Using “then” at the end of the scene, e.g., “I pressed my ear against the door. I did not hear the intruder walk away, but the absence of sound was reassuring. Then the doorknob turned.” Not the worst example, but imagine how this could have been  more suspenseful and less jarring had the narrator taken the time to flesh this out. 
  2. Back-to-back scenes in the same location. You may need to break up one scene into several transitions, but don’t overdo it. The problem with this is it may not be clear how much time has passed.
  3. Info dumping. If you change to a new time and place, you might be tempted to go into a long-winded description about the new location. Work it naturally into narrative and dialogue. Only tell the reader what they have to know.
  4. Waiting too long to introduce the new POV. I don’t know why writers withhold character names. I’ve read novels where it takes a page or more to establish the name of a new character. Unless their hidden identity is crucial to the plot, don’t create false suspense by withholding information about a character.

As always, I’m interested in your feedback. How do you show scene changes? What are the worst, the best transitions you’ve ever read?

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