Wednesday, April 13

Next! Writing Transitions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

How we move from line to line, paragraph to paragraph, scene to scene, and chapter to chapter all lead the reader though our story, and if we don't do a good job, they won't get very far. Jarring jumps, awkward shifts, missing information, can all knock a reader right out of the story. Are your transitions making the reader want to keep reading or look for the remote?

Chapter to Chapter
We all know about chapter transitions. End one chapter with something to compel the reader to turn the page. That can be a cliffhanger, a secret revealed, the revelation that there is a secret, a foreboding piece of dialog or image, a major decision, or what have you. Use your imagination, but make it something where the reader wants to know what happens next.

The opening of the next chapter is just as important (actually more so since this is where you can lose a reader if you don't make them happy). This is the line that answers, or begins the journey to the answer, you posed at the end of the previous chapter. This is what readers want to know about. Ignoring that curiosity is a good way to make the reader feel cheated and tricked, and then they won't find those clever chapter endings compelling anymore, because they know you won't follow through. Ending with something cool about to happen, then jumping ahead and never resolving that, gets old fast.

This holds true even for books with multiple POVs. Getting a reader all intrigued by something, ending on a note that makes them desperate to want to know what happens next, then switching to another POV... Wow, you really have to work hard to get them to stay with you and not flip ahead (or skim) to find out the answer to the chapter end. So your chapter openings have to be even more compelling to promise the reader that if they stick with you, it'll be worth it.

Transition Check: Did you satisfy reader curiosity, or did you jump ahead in time or location and flashback to deal with the chapter end? Or worse, ignore it altogether? If you're using multiple POV, did you start off with something equally interesting or let the pacing drop in the next POV scene and start over?

Scene to Scene
Scene breaks are just as important as chapter breaks and follow all the same principles. Any time you break you give the reader an opportunity to set the book down, as breaks are natural stopping points. You might even feel the urge to offer good stopping points, like having a character go to bed or set off on a trip, something that says "yeah, we'll pick it up here tomorrow, 'kay?" But without something to entice them to read on, why would they come back tomorrow?

Of course, breaking a scene to move the story to another location, time, or character is an effective tool. We also don't want to bore the reader with unimportant stuff that happens between one scene and the next. So you want to offer that same mystery or tease you would with a chapter end. Often, scene breaks are softer, relying on the building sense of doom to carry the reader forward. A decision has been made, the stakes have been stated, and now we're going to see how it works out. Chances are, you've got good tension going here, so start out the next scene with that in mind. Build off that and keep it going.

Transition Check: Did you end with something to draw readers forward, or did you let the protag sleep, travel, or do something else that lets the tension and pacing drop? Did you start the next scene with things in motion, tension building, or did you set up the scene to come?

Paragraph to Paragraph
Now we're getting into the nitty gritty. Paragraphs work just like chapters and scenes to move things forward, but in a more subtle way. Something in the paragraph will lead to the next, allowing bits of information to build upon each other to a bigger idea. But you don't want to just start and end with any old sentence.

Large paragraphs are also places where you could lose a reader, because they often contain the boring stuff. Description, exposition, backstory, etc. A big chunk of text is a candidate for skimming if it doesn't offer something worth spending time on right away. So your first line is important. You want it to grab interest same as any other first line, offer a hint that this is what the reader has been waiting for. That doesn't mean every single paragraph has to have the same impact as the first line in your book, but a line that offers nothing intriguing is one that suggest that paragraph isn't worth reading. It might get skipped. Skipping too many makes it feel like the book is boring and nothing is happening.

The last line is equally important, if not more so. This is where you end with a punch. It's also often where the important information is revealed, and that's what the reader is after all along. It's the payoff, and the thing that will stay with them even after they've forgotten what else was in that paragraph. It's not uncommon to bury the good hook ending in the middle, then feel then need to explain it. Avoid this impulse and let the hook grab on its own.

You also want your paragraphs to flow into one another, one idea leading to the next. If you're talking about planting a bomb in the cellar, a sudden paragraph about how the protag's brother was killed by a drunk driver and that's why he's doing this will likely make the reader stumble and lose their focus. Loss of focus means loss of tension, which could lead to loss of reader.

Another trouble spot is changing location without telling the reader. One paragraph, you're in the kitchen making a sandwich, then next you're on the couch flipping through the newspaper. If your character moves locations, let the reader know or they'll get lost.

Transition Check: Did your paragraphs start with something to draw the reader in, or just state a bland fact? Did they end with a punch, or just end? Did you bury the hook line? Were there any off topic paragraphs stuck in the middle? Were similar thoughts grouped together, or were they mixed throughout? Did you change locations without telling the reader?

Sentence to Sentence
Obviously, you can't do the same things on a sentence by sentence basis, but you still want every line to draw the reader seamlessly into the next. Something that feels awkward or out of place will jar the reader out of the story and make the prose feel clunky. If you change direction, make sure the reader has enough clues to follow you and keep up. This happens most frequently when you have a character reacting to something before the stimulus is even shown, such as "Bob fell flat on his face, tripped by the zombie arm lying across the sidewalk." We see Bob fall before we ever see him trip.

Transition Check: Did your sentences flow logically from one idea to the next, or were there off topic bits mixed it? Did you show characters reacting to things the reader hadn't seen yet, or did your stimulus-response follow each other logically?

Checking your transitions is a good way to spot when something isn't working but you're not sure why. It feels like all the right pieces are there (and they often are), but the scene drags, or feels clunky, or just isn't grabbing the attention it should. Sometimes, it's a matter of shifting things around so they lead the reader where you want them to go.


  1. *Gulp!* My book has multiple POVs (three, to be exact), and it's taking all my control not to go check my chapter-to-chapter transitions RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

    I also like this point: "when you have a character reacting to something before the stimulus is even shown" - that's something I'm sure I'm guilty of, but I never actively thought about it before. Definitely something to keep in mind for revision time.

  2. Ooh, Donna....same boat, you and I. :)

    Re: Wednesdays, a concern of mine while rewriting is identifying and solidifying all the story arcs. Sometimes it just feels like such a huge task. Maybe advice on breaking down story arcs during revisions? That's kind of vague, sorry!

  3. Not so vague :) Story Arcs it is. Keep 'em coming folks.

  4. I read all these tips and feel like a golfer, over the ball as 1000 things he's read or been coached run through his brain all at once. Big swing and the ball dribbles 10 yards to my right.

  5. This is a great post. Like Donna, I need to be sure that the action comes before the reaction.

    I had to learn how to transition in time without telling things that are mundane and unnecessary. I cut a lot of words focusing on that.

  6. "when you have a character reacting to something before the stimulus is even shown"

    Wow, it's kinda scary how often you mention things I've done shortly after I've started musing on them.

  7. This is an awesome post! You should definitely consider having this published as an article. I have problems with transitions a lot of the time, but I am getting better :)

  8. Great tips. I have yet to write my first book, it's still in my head and at the research stage. I am hoping to find some missing information soon, it's a historical novel, but details on the events are rather sketchy, and I would prefer it to be as close to the truth as possible.

  9. Mark: Oo sorry about that. I do know what you mean, though. There's so much to learn and trying to absorb it all at once is overwhelming. What worked for me, was to take one thing at a time and work on it until I got it, then move on to the next.

    Natalie: Those time jumps the easier place to tighten. I still do it sometimes and get this "ugh do I have to write all that out?" feeling. I always know that's where I need a scene break :)

    Carradee: Awesome! Love when that happens.

    Las Vegas Writer: Aw, thanks! I really do need to start submitting some of this stuff.

    Tony: Probably a smart plan if it's a historical. I can see how easy it would be to go off track without the research to check.

  10. "You also want your paragraphs to flow into one another, one idea leading to the next. "

    About this flowing idea ... I've noticed that there is great flow in a first draft, but the editing process chops it all up and rearranges everything. It's very difficult to get the flow happening again---to make it read like a brilliant first draft.

  11. I read my ms many times and had a few other readers go through it before it occurred to me that my ms falls asleep at the end of each of the first three chapters and wakes up at the start of the next.

    Hopefully this article will help others avoid that mistake!!

  12. Tamarapaulin: Sometimes that does happen, and it takes some work to fix it. But if you did it once, you can do it again ;)

    Erica and Christy: Eek! Not good, hehe. Going to bed feels like such a great ender because things stop so naturally, but it does stop the story. There are ways to make it work, but it's trickier.