Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Moving Forward: Writing Smooth Transitions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The flow of a novel is an important and often overlooked aspect of keeping readers immersed in the story.

When I'm reading, I'm much more engrossed in prose that goes smoothly from one thought to the next and one scene to another. If the text is too choppy, it jars me right out of the story and I have difficulty getting back into it. It's like getting interrupted every few minutes when you're trying to focus--before long, you just give up.

A strong story usually has a strong sense of story flow. The author smoothly takes the reader from idea to idea, scene to scene, and chapter to chapter. The information shared is handled with care and readers aren't given too much or too little. Everything flows so effortlessly readers forget they're reading.

Weaker prose doesn't flow so well. Chapters end in odd places, scenes just stop, and paragraphs contain awkward phrases that jars readers right out of the story. Readers are reminded over and over that they're reading, and they notice the flaws more than the story.

Transitions matter. How you guide readers through your story plays a big role in how caught up in that story they'll get.

Do your chapter transitions make readers want to read on? 

How a chapter ends should entice readers to turn the page and see what happens next. If you end on a cliffhanger or major "oh no!" moment, but then start the next chapter in a new location or time, readers might wonder what the heck they missed (dual perspectives don't apply here, as that's the norm, and readers understand that). They might also feel cheated, because you promised them an exciting hook and then didn't deliver. Do that enough times and you'll lose readers.

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. If you don't pick up and run with that idea, readers can feel left behind.

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. These are the bare minimum questions for chapter endings and a strong narrative drive, but you might also consider:
  • What mood do you want readers 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 readers?

(Here's more on And...End Scene: When to Add a Scene Break)

Have more than one point of view?

With dual perspectives it's a bit tougher to craft smooth transitions, because storylines and locations often change. Points of view might not even be in the same galaxies or timelines, or they might be in the same room. Shifting readers from one to the other risks them setting down the book, since however the chapter ended won't be resolved by just reading a few more pages of the next chapter.

Think about where you left off during that last point of view chapter, and how the new chapter transitions from that.

Does it just jump ahead and start a new problem? If so, the story line might start to feel episodic.

Does it continue right where you left off? If so, it might feel as though the story jumped back in time since a whole other chapter (or more) took place while readers were away and nothing changed in this story line. Is one super exciting and the other a bit dull? You might cause readers to skim one point of view to get back to "the good one."

Consider how readers will react when a chapter switches to a new point of view character. Will it pull them further into the story, or give them a reason to walk away from it?

(Here's more on Handling Scene Transitions With Multiple POVs)

Do your scene transitions keep readers hooked? 

How you move from scene to scene is very similar to chapter to chapter. You want readers to follow along, dying to know more, and eager 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 the character's emotional space. 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?

(Here's more on Follow the Leader: Moving From Scene to Scene) 

Are you moving smoothly from idea to idea? 

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 a character segues into another idea, something made them do it.

If paragraphs are filled with details that don't actually relate to the scene 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?

Bad transitions at the paragraph level can result in clunky text and confusing passages that are hard to read and easy to put down. You don't want to make your readers work to enjoy your story.

(Here's more on Why You Should Tighten Your Novel's Narrative Focus) 

Some Common Transition Problems

How did we get here? 

Beware a change in location or time without letting readers 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 readers about the shift, either at the end of one scene or the beginning of another.

Where did that come from?

Avoid shifts 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. 

Don't take too much time 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 and Cliffhangers

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 exactly into the next as expected, as long as the story flow is smooth and keeps readers hooked.

The smoother your transitions are, the smoother your prose will read, and your readers 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? 

*Originally published June 2012. Last updated July 2020.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.

Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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. :)

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

  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.

  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.

  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.

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

  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!

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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!

  13. A most useful post. I'll be bookmarking it for future use. Thank you.