Welcome to Day Twenty-Three of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. Up until now, we’ve been adding and tweaking our stories, focusing more on getting the missing information in, and cutting the unnecessary information out. Odds are we’ve gotten some scenes a little messy, but the overall novel is working from a plot, character, and scene to scene standpoint. Now is the time to tighten things back up.
Now that our characters are talking and thinking clearly, it’s time to make sure our scenes and transitions are moving through the novel just as smoothly.
Today, we’ll look at our transitions and see if there are any rough or jarring areas between scenes and ideas.
1. Check the Chapter and Scene Transitions
How we move from line to line, paragraph to paragraph, scene to scene, and chapter to chapter leads readers though our novels. The smoother those transitions, the easier we can draw readers in, while jarring jumps, awkward shifts, and missing information can all knock a reader right out of the story.
Chapter to chapter transitions: Make sure every chapter ends with something compelling readers to turn the page. It might be a cliffhanger, a secret revealed, the revelation that there is a secret, a foreboding piece of dialog or image, a major decision, etc. Use your imagination, but make it something to make readers want to know what happens next. Breaking a chapter (or scene) to move the story to another location, time, or character is also an effective tool. Things to ask:
- Does the chapter end with something left hanging or a question left unanswered?
- Is there a sense of anticipation about what will happen next?
- Is there a sense of where the plot or story is going?
The opening of the next chapter is just as important (actually more so since this is where you can lose readers if you don't make them happy). This is what answers--or begins the journey to the answer—the question you posed at the end of the previous chapter. Things to ask:
- Does the scene opening satisfy reader curiosity, or did it jump ahead in time or location and flashback to deal with the previous chapter’s end? Or worse, ignore it altogether?
- In multiple POV novels, did the next POV’s scene start off with something equally interesting or did the pacing drop and the tension start over?
Scene to scene transitions: Any time we break a scene we give readers an opportunity to set the book down, since scene breaks are natural stopping points. We might even feel the urge to create good stopping points, like having a character go to bed or set off on a trip, something that tells the reader, “yeah, we'll pick it up here tomorrow, 'kay?" But without something to entice readers to read on, why would they come back tomorrow?
Often, scene breaks are softer, relying on the building sense of doom to carry readers forward. A decision has been made, the stakes have been stated, and now it’s time to see how it works out. Chances are, you've got nice tension building, so start out the next scene in a way that builds on that tension and keeps it going. Things to ask:
- Does the scene end with something to draw readers forward, or does it let the protagonist sleep, travel, or do something else that drops the tension and pacing?
- Does the next scene start with things in motion or does it set up the scene to come?
Checking the actual transitions is a good way to spot (and fix) the problem when something isn't working but you're not sure why. If it feels like all the right pieces are there (and they often are), but the scene drags, feels clunky, or just isn't grabbing the attention it should, try shifting things around so they lead readers where you want them to go.
You can also take transitions even deeper and look at how one paragraph transitions to the next, and even how one sentence transitions to the next, though checking every line in this fashion would require a lot more time.
Most Common Transition Problems
How did we get here? The location or time changes without clues to alert readers they've moved. This can also be confusing if the story jumps ahead in time, but it isn’t clear how much time has passed. Try informing readers about a shift, either at the end of one scene or the beginning of another.
Where did that come from? A shift in ideas 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 the character suddenly think that.
Get there already Too much time is spent showing the transition. Travel is a common problem area for this type, with the character moving from one place to another, often describing everything she sees along the way. In fact, this is sometimes the only reason for the travel—an excuse to describe the setting. Try breaking the scene and moving to when the next interesting thing happens.
2. Check for Repetition of Transitions
Scene beginnings and endings often have similar tones or phrasing, so it’s not unusual to see the same basic style repeated throughout our first drafts. Write down the first and last lines or paragraphs of every scene and look for similarities. If there are multiple scenes starting and ending in the same way, rewrite to vary.
Common problems: The first line of the scene begins like, “As I walked into…” “I stood with…” “We waited while…” and the like. The final line is a statement of intent, such as “I had to find out why they wanted me dead,” or “character goes unconscious in some way.”
After today’s session, we should have a novel with a solid narrative flow that moves smoothly from one scene to the next, dragging readers along with it.
This ends Stage Four, and we should have a novel that’s in pretty good shape. Everything is in the right place, telling the story as intended, and unfolding the way we want it to. Next, we’ll start work on polishing our drafts and cleaning up the text itself.
Tomorrow: Revise Any Unnecessary Passive Voice
New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
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, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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