I'm a bit of a stickler for transitions. When I'm reading, I like to go smoothly from one thought to the next and one scene to another. If the prose is too choppy, it jars me out of the story and I have difficulty getting back into it.
Transitions aren't just about scenes, however. How you go from paragraph to paragraph is just as important, and often more so, because the reader doesn't expect to be jarred in the middle of text. A scene break is a break, so they know things are changing. But change in the middle with no warning and you risk losing them.
Let's look at this from the top down.
How a chapter ends should entice the reader to turn the page and move on. If you end on a climax or major "oh no!" moment, but then start the next chapter in a new location or time, your reader might wonder what the heck they missed (dual perspectives don't apply here, as that's the norm). Think of chapter endings like a hand off during a relay race. One chapter ends and it gives the next chapter the baton to run with the idea.
When ending your chapters, consider:
- What do you want readers to take with them to the next chapter?
- What do you want them to wonder or worry about?
- What are you teasing them with?
With dual perspectives it's harder, because storylines and locations often change. But think about where you left off during that last POV, and how this new chapter transitions from that. Does it just jump ahead? If so, it might feel episodic. Does it continue right where you left off? If so, it might feel like you've jumped back in time since a whole other chapter (or more) took place while you were away and nothing changed here. You might also think about:
- What mood do you want the reader to carry into the next chapter?
- How are you manipulating the tension or pacing?
- What themes might be continuing?
- How will this transition feel to the reader?
How you move from scene to scene is very similar to chapter to chapter. You want readers to follow along, want to know more, and want to read on. Sometimes you'll break the scene and move ahead, other times you'll have a quick line or paragraph that shows the change in location or attitude. Think about:
- What triggers the scene break and how that moves to the next scene?
- Where does the new scene start? Why there?
- Is there a change in time or location? Character?
- Do the stakes or tension rise?
Moving from thought to thought and line to line takes more finesse, and this will affect how the story reads--the narrative flow. A big factor here is your stimulus/response. One thought leads to the next. One actions triggers another. Even if you segue into another idea, something made you do it.
If your paragraphs are filled with details that don't actually relate it can feel aimless. Some things to ask:
- Does every paragraph have a point?
- Are there extraneous details that are shoved in because they "have" to be there?
- Are you working too hard to force an idea or line in where it doesn't belong?
- Are your lines leading the reader somewhere?
- When you change ideas, is there something that triggers that idea or does it just change?
Most Common Transition Problems
How did we get here?
A change in location or time without letting the reader know they've moved. This can also be confusing if you jump ahead in time, but aren't clear how much time has passed. Try informing the reading about the shift, either at the end of one scene or the beginning of another.
Where did that come from?
A shift in ideas that comes out of the blue. This often happens when the character needs to realize or remember something for plot reasons, but there's nothing in the text to trigger that realization. Try adding that trigger and showing what makes them suddenly think that.
Get there already
Too much time spent showing the transition. Travel is a common problem area for this type, with the character moving from one place to another, and often describing everything they see along the way. In fact, this is sometimes the only reason why they travel. It's just an excuse to describe the setting. Try breaking the scene and just moving to when the next thing happens.
Thoughts on Surprises
Sometimes you want something to happen out of the blue and be a shock. If the point is to be unexpected, then be unexpected. You don't have to make every single thing flow smoothly into the other, as long as the story flow keeps the reader hooked and does what you want it to do.
The smoother your transitions are, the smoother your prose will read, and your reader will flow seamlessly into the next cool scene or idea you have planned for them.
Do you think about how you transition between scene and ideas? Have you ever gotten feedback about choppy writing and didn't know how to fix it?
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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