Friday, September 12

Moving Forward: Writing Smooth Transitions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

Chapter Transitions 


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?
If you can't answer these, then maybe your chapters are just ending, and not moving the story forward.

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?
These are also good things to think about for single POV chapter transitions.

Scene Transitions 


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?

Idea Transitions 


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? 


Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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12 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post! Transitions are about the hardest thing for me to write. Sometimes moving from one scene to another takes more work than writing the scene itself. :)

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  2. This is just what I needed. Transitions are the hardest for me.

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  3. Great post. SO much here that I'm going to have to read it a few times to digest it. Added it to my "teaching writing" wiki. Thanks.

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  4. I'm dealing with two main perspectives and two secondary ones. This has been something of interest for me because I've read things that say you don't want your story to come across as "episodic". I haven't really grasped what that's really supposed to mean, honestly.

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  5. Chicory, I know! They can be such a pain sometimes. A lot of it depends on the story as well. Some just flow easier.

    Janice, glad it helped! I think they're why I like scene breaks so much. Just stop and jump ahead, hehe.

    Carol, thanks! It'll be here to digest at your leisure :)

    Angela,I'm doing a dual POV that's been feeling episodic to me, so I know exactly what you're talking about. (and that'll make a good post, so thanks!) Quickie answer now and more next week, but episodic basically means that each chapter feels like it's own event and not really connected to the driving story or plot. Things happen, but they don't build off each other so if you took one piece out, the plot would fall apart. (or you can shift them around and nothing really changes)

    Multiple POV really adds to this because chapter transitions switch characters and often locations and story lines as well.

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  6. Transitions can be difficult to write, thanks for the advice!!

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  7. I love leaving a chapter on a high moment, and those are fairly easy for me to write. It's the "how-do-I-get-outta-here" moments that always throw me for a loop. Great article!

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  8. Traci, most welcome! Hope this helps make them easier.

    Suzanne, that's a whole other post, lol. For me, it always comes down to goals and POV. Put yourself in their shoes and figure out what they'd do next.

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  9. Awesome sauce! I'm at 89K and ilmost finished with draft 1. When I go through on my next draft, I'll have to be much more careful about transitions between ...well everywhere. Thanks for the tips. I do find while some chapter changes come easily, there are others with which I really struggle. Hard for me to figure out why that is the case. Hmmmm.

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  10. Rasjacobson, happens to everyone. I have chapters where I know I need a better ending, so I write "need better" in red and move on. I figure once I'm revising I'll see the right way to end it. Usually works, though some take a lot more work than others.

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  11. My biggest problem is the `get there already!' I've finally figured out that sometimes I just need to fritter until I have the next scene layout clearly in mind, and then cut drastically.

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  12. I sometimes have trouble transitioning within scenes--I'll unintentionally insert something that might be jarring, or doesn't quite gibe with the previous paragraph. I'm always looking for ways to be smoother in the scene so my reader doesn't feel like they're in a bumper car the entire time. Great post!

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