Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Tips on Writing Scene and Chapter Transitions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Stories flow from word to word, sentence to sentence, scene to scene. If we’ve done our job well as writers, each one draws the reader to the next and pulls them through the story. If we’ve stumbled a bit, they hit rough patches and ugly spots that stop the story and might even make them out it down and walk away.

The story is important, but so is how we transition from one scene to the next. This hand off is what creates the smooth narrative flow and sense of a story unfolding, versus a bunch of scenes where stuff happens but it feels disconnected.

There are all kinds of transitions. Paragraph transitions. Scene transitions. Chapter transitions. They each play different roles, but at the core, they all have the same job—to keep readers reading .

Writing Chapter Transitions

Chapter transitions are the easiest to do, because chapters end with something exciting going on (or they should—if not, that’s another problem to worry about). Chapters offer a cliffhanger, a secret revealed, a foreboding warning—something that makes the reader interested in reading the next chapter.

Writers pay the most attention to these transitions, because we know getting readers to turn the page is vital to getting them to enjoy the book. They’re big moments, they stand out, and they draw our focus.

Chapter transitions work in one of two ways. The next chapter picks up right where the previous one ended, or it jumps ahead in time (or back if it's that kind of story).

The pick up one is a no brainier. We just continue the story uninterrupted.
Chapter end:

Bob froze, but the file shook in his hands. No. It was impossible. The report was wrong, it had to be. If this was real, that meant Sally—

“Did you find something?” Sally leaned against the door frame, arms crossed, blocking the only way out.

Next chapter:

Bob shrugged and tossed the file back into the drawer as if it meant nothing. “Bureaucratic nonsense.”

“Let me see.” She moved toward him. “I could use a good laugh.”
This type of chapter transition works because it ends with a teaser that makes the reader want to know what Bob just discovered about Sally. It might tease a little longer before getting there, but it’s leading to that reveal and readers won’t have to wait long for the payoff.

The time jump transition is trickier. If you end with your protagonist in dire straights, the reader expects to see them get out of it. So it you jump ahead and the protagonist is suddenly fine, readers will feel cheated.
Chapter end:

Jane crept into the dark hall, her ears alert for zombie moans. Three steps in, the floorboard behind her creaked, then...

"Braaiinssss," a zombie moaned.

Next chapter:

Jane was still mad at Bob for jumping out at her the night before. He'd have to do the cooking for at least a week to make up for it.
This folks, is a cop out. Let the scene play out and reward the reader for turning the page like you wanted them to. Because if they turned the page, it's because they really want to know what will happen.

Often we get into this quandary because we're trying too hard to end on a cliffhanger. The protagonist isn't really in that much trouble, but we've blown it up some for the drama. If every chapter ends with a fake out, your reader will lose confidence in you and they won't be holding their breath anymore. They might even put the book down since you keep glossing over the good stuff.

(Here’s more on when to add a scene break)

Writing Scene Transitions

We've all written a scene, gotten to the end, and then couldn't figure out how to get to the next scene smoothly. Time passes, sometimes even distance if your protagonist is traveling, but nothing exciting happens during that time, and you don't want to bore your readers with a description. So what do you do?

Easiest thing is to just break the scene and move on.
Bob and Jane packed up the truck and drove off into the night. She prayed they'd find salvation in Buffalo.
Buffalo wasn't what she expected. Five days on the road should end with more than a half-burnt Motel Six and no clue where to go next.
Simple, easy, and you can skip all the travel description if nothing happens. But be wary: You might be tempted to toss some action in there because it feels like more needs to happen between plot events, but be careful of empty action. Readers will expect it to mean something, and if it doesn't, you might make them angry (and you wouldn't like them when they're angry).

If the travel between scenes doesn’t matter, skip it. But if it’s vital to the story, then treat it like any other scene. Give the characters a goal, stakes, complications, the whole works. Keep the tension high and the pages turning.

Sometimes the urge to explain hits you because something happens in between scenes you want the reader to know about, but it's not worth dramatizing. A quick summary paragraph at the start of the new scene is an easy way to catch readers up.
Five days on the road was enough to test anyone's nerves, but at least Bob had done all the cooking—as promised—and they'd only had one close call outside Nashville. Bob had been a little reckless with the shotgun and wasted half their shells, but she had finally forgiven him for jumping out at her.

Buffalo wasn't what she expected.
Now readers know they had an encounter, wasted some ammo, and made up after their fight. Seeing that wasn’t important, but settling those issues was.

(Here’s more on writing smooth transitions) 

Writing Paragraph Transitions

Paragraph transitions can be trickier. We need to get our characters from point A to point B, but constant walking around gets repetitive. Or driving. Or flying. Or any of the ways we move them, unless it involves something really cool, such as Asgard beaming technology*.

Unlike chapter and scene transitions, we usually can't just jump ahead in a paragraph without it feeling clunking.
Jane tossed her backpack on what was left of the bed. The top mattress was done for, but if she stripped it off, they could probably manage on the bottom one. Not that they'd sleep at the same time. Someone had to keep watch so they didn't wind up tourist-tar-tar.

She squinted into the dingy bathroom mirror and debated the wisdom of drinking the water. Maybe her teeth didn't need brushing after all.
Okay, did you feel thrown between these two paragraphs? I bet you did. You probably asked, "hey, wait a minute, when did she walk to the bathroom?" It's a minor thing, and you can probably figure out what she did after a moment, but for that moment, a reader was confused and stopped reading.

To keep them moving along uninterrupted, you need to get Jane smoothly into the bathroom. There are all kinds of ways to do this.
Jane walked to the bathroom.

Jane crossed the room and entered the bathroom.

Jane found the bathroom behind a ripped curtain someone at some point must have had nailed up to replace the missing door.

Jane pulled her Sig Sauer nine mil and crept toward what looked like the bathroom. Probably no one there, but why take chances.
Some of these are way more interesting than others. They also provide you opportunities to do more than just show a transition from point A to point B. The last two examples give setting details, and up the tension. It also tells a little about Jane. She can recognize a makeshift camp, and she's caution and armed.

(Here’s more on describing movement in a scene)

Good transitions feel seamless, just like good back story or good world building. It happens right under a reader's nose and they don't even notice it, because it flows so well with the story and does more than just direct character traffic.

How do you like to handle transition?

*Brownie points to those who get the reference.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

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. I get the brownie points! I love the whole Stargate franchise. So glad to see it mentioned here.

    Great post, by the way. :)

  2. good article. will pass along to my writing students. thanks.

  3. I thought I might be having a problem with transitions so I was more than a little interested in this post. I had been concerned about maybe putting too many detailed passages into my WiP, but obviously they're needed to get for one thought to the next in the story.

    1. They frequently are. If you're concerned, you could always experiment some. Break a few scenes and see how it reads without the detailed passages. If it's better, keep it. If not, go with the detailed ones.