Elmore Leonard is frequently quoted as saying: "I try to leave out the parts people skip." Nowhere is this more useful than in knowing when to break a scene. Transitions have a funny way of being the parts people skip.
But there's a skill to knowing when to break a scene. You don't want to just stop and jump ahead in time or location, because that can jar the reader. Too many awkward scene breaks can feel like pieces of a story strung together and lose the narrative flow. Breaking every time you get to a good hook line just feels choppy and...weird. Like chapter breaks, a good scene break should make the reader think "ooooh" and keep on reading.
What makes a good scene break?
You'd think cliffhangers, but no, that can get boring after a while or even become melodramatic. A good scene break is one that leaves the reader with a sense of forward momentum. The story isn't stopping, it's nudging them on with a renewed sense of curiosity. Some common ways to do this:
The "Dum-Dum-DUMMM!" Moment
Reveal something and shock both readers and characters. Not only is it a shock, but it probably requires immediate action on the protagonist's part. Hence, it moves the story forward to the next scene without having to say "three hours later" or something similar.
Bob froze and stared at the vial in Sally's backpack. Silvery liquid swirled. Was this--? No, it couldn't be. He glanced at Sally and a few odd things suddenly made more sense.
And he didn't like any of them.
The vial tugged at his pocket as they crept along what used to be Vanguard Street. He couldn't take his eyes off Sally's back. Everything she did held new meaning now.A scene ender like this should make readers question Sally the same as Bob does, and wonder what he just put together. If done well, readers might even reevaluate what they thought they knew and see details of the plot in a new light.
The "We Have to Do This" Moment
State a goal and show things about to happen, allowing you to jump right to that point. Readers know what has to be done and where the characters are going. (even if it's just a vague idea). Showing the trip to get there isn't necessary.
"That settles it," said Bob grabbing the sub-machine gun off the bed. "If we're getting out of here, we're gonna have to risk the tunnel."
The Holland Tunnel looked like it wanted to eat them same as the zombies inside of it.With this type of scene ender, you don't have to show them leaving and going to the tunnels. You can start the next scene in the tunnels dealing with the problem (and knowing Bob, it's hoards of zombies). If you want to build a little tension before they actually enter, the scene can start with the final approach, or if you want to dive in to just before things go wrong, the scene could start inside the tunnels.
The "I Hate Waiting" Moment
Make the protagonist wait to act, even though he really wants to do something. Breaking a scene at the height of his discomfort is a great way to transition into him finally getting to do something. It's also fun when paired with a ticking clock, so readers know things are getting worse while the protagonist is forced to wait.
Sally put her hand on his shoulder. "This sucks, I know, but we can't do anything until morning."
Bob grit his teeth and nodded, but his hands itched to throw open the door and go find her--whatever it cost him.
The sun was barely up but it cast enough light to see the path through the woods, and that was good enough for himThis type of scene ended plays with delayed gratification by forcing both the reader and the protagonist to wait. It also sets up an easy transition to start the next scene the moment Bob leaves to go search for her (Jane, the love of his life).
The "All is Lost and I Really Need a Moment" Moment
A total emotional breakdown deserves a break, so when the protagonist has just undergone something emotionally catastrophic, why not break and skip ahead to when he's composed himself and is ready to deal with it?
The groan was unmistakable.This type of scene ender works well when watching the protagonist fall to pieces won't be very fun (there's nothing happening, no goal, no stakes, he's just losing it), but watching him deal with the aftermath and while he struggles to comes to grip with it will be delicious.
"No..." Bob fell to he knees. Jane gnawed at him from behind the glass, her eyes dead, the rest of her--not.
"You still with me?" Sally asked, handing him a bottle of water. She'd run out of tissues a while ago.
"Yeah." But what was the point?
The "Sleepy Time" Moment
Although you want to be very cautious about ending a scene with a character going to sleep, sometimes it is the right way to break a scene. The trick here is to do it in a way that also keeps the tension high so readers don't also feel the need to hit the hay. Let the character not want to rest or sleep. Maybe going to sleep sucks at that moment, because something big and bad is looming. Yes, he's going to sleep, but anything can happen at any moment regardless.
"Get some sleep," Sally told him. "I'll wake you if the world comes to an end again."
"What are the odds of that?"
She glanced out the crack through the boarded-up windows. "Right now? I'd say three to one."
Glass shattered and Bob jerked awake.Even though the protagonist is going to bed, there's still a sense that things could go wrong, and readers might even anticipate the odds will turn against them and Bob will wake up to a problem. In fact, it works best when there is something about to happen. Readers know it, so they keep reading to see what it is.
The sound of the end of the world. Again.
However, just because you have one of these moments doesn't mean you have to break the scene. Scene breaks are great ways to control the pacing of your novel and keep the focus on what matters, , but dramatized transitions are also useful. Choose the one that works best for that scene.
How do you feel about scene breaks? Do you break often or show the transition? Do you mix them up?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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