Just like moving through a crowded room can be rough, getting from scene to scene or even sentence to sentence can be a challenge. But how we move readers through our stories are important to how long a reader with stay with our stories.
Chapter transitions are the easiest, because chapters end with something exciting going on. A cliffhanger, a secret revealed, a foreboding warning. Something that leads the reader to the next chapter. We pay the most attention to these because we know getting readers to turn the page is vital to getting them to enjoy the book.
Chapter transitions work in one of two ways. The next chapter picks up right where the previous one ended, or it jumps ahead in time. (Or back if it's that kind of story).
The picks up one is a no brainier. We just continue the story uninterrupted.
The time jump is trickier. If you end with your protag in dire straights, the reader expects to see them get out of it. So it you jump ahead and the protag is suddenly fine, readers will feel cheated. Sometimes we get into this quandary because we're trying too hard to end on a cliffhanger. The protag isn't really in that much trouble, but we've blown it up some for the drama. Raise your hand if you've ever written the "a hand lands on the protag's shoulder and they scream, only it's just a friend not the bad guy" scene. [raises hand]. Now, don't get me wrong, these scenes are fine and can work well, but if every chapter ends with a fake out, your reader will lose confidence in you and they won't be holding their breath anymore. They might even put the book down since you keep glossing over the good stuff.
If you end with something about to happen, own up and finish it. Don't skip ahead and summarize what happened between the gasp moment and the next chapter.
Jane crept into the dark hall, her ears alert for zombie moans. Three steps in, the floorboard behind her creaked, then...Next chapter:
"Braaiinssss," a zombie moaned.
Jane was still mad at Bob for jumping out at her the night before. He'd have to do the cooking for at least a week to make up for it.This folks, is a cop out. Let the scene play out, and reward the reader for turning the page like you wanted them to. Because if they turned the page, it's because they really want to know what will happen.
We've all written a scene, got to the end, and then couldn't figure out how to get to the next scene smoothly. Time passes, sometimes even distance if your protag is traveling. But nothing exciting happens during that time, and you don't want to bore your readers with a description. So what do you do?
Easiest thing is to just break the scene and move on.
Bob and Jane packed up the truck and drove off into the night. She prayed they'd find salvation in Buffalo.Simple, easy, and you can skip all the travel gunk if nothing happens. Now, you might be tempted to toss something in there just for kicks, but be wary of empty action. Readers will expect it to mean something, and if it doesn't, you might make them angry. (And you wouldn't like them when they're angry).
Buffalo wasn't what she expected. Six days on the road should end with more than a half-burnt Motel Six and no clue where to go next.
But if the travel is vital to the story, then treat it like any other scene. Give them a goal, stakes, complications. Keep the tension high and the pages turning.
What if something happens in between scenes, and you want the reader to know it, but it's not worth dramatizing? A quick summary paragraph at the start of the new scene is an easy way to catch readers up.
Six days on the road was enough to test anyone's nerves, but at least Bob had done all the cooking--as promised -- and they'd only had one close call outside Nashville. Bob had been a little reckless with the shotgun, but it had gotten her to finally forgive him for jumping out at her.
Buffalo wasn't what she expected.
Paragraph transitions can be trickier. We need to get our characters from point A to point B, but constant walking around gets repetitive. Or driving. Or flying. Or any of the ways we move them, unless it involves something really cool. Like Asgard beaming technology*.
Unlike chapter and scene transitions, we can't just jump ahead.
Jane tossed her backpack on what was left of the bed. The top mattress was done for, but if she stripped it off, they could probably manage on the bottom one. Not that they'd sleep at the same time. Someone had to keep watch so they didn't wind up tourist-tar-tar.
She squinted into the dingy bathroom mirror and debated the wisdom of drinking the water. Maybe her teeth didn't need brushing after all.
Okay, did you feel thrown between these two paragraphs? I bet you did. You probably asked, "hey, wait a minute, when did she walk to the bathroom?" It's a minor thing, and you can probably figure out what she did after a moment, but for that moment, a reader was confused and stopped reading.
To keep them moving along uninterrupted, you need to get Jane smoothly into the bathroom. There are all kinds of ways to do this.
Jane walked to the bathroom.
Jane crossed the room and entered the bathroom.
Jane found the bathroom behind a ripped curtain someone at some point must have had nailed up to replace the missing door.
Jane pulled her Sig Sauer nine mil and crept toward what looked like the bathroom. Probably no one there, but why take chances.
Some of these are way more interesting than others. They also provide you opportunities to do more than just show a transition from point A to point B. The last two examples give setting details, and up the tension. It also tells a little about Jane. She can recognize a makeshift camp, and she's caution and armed.
Good transitions feel seamless, just like good back story or good world building. It happens right under a reader's nose and they don't even notice it, because it flows so well with the story and does more than just direct character traffic.
*Brownie points to those who get the reference.