Writing itself is change, and within story structure, transitions are key to keeping things moving.
It isn’t just about getting your character from scene to scene, it’s also is about communicating ideas and making sure there’s a smooth flow from one piece of information to the next.
Without deft transitions, the manuscript flow becomes herky-jerky. Characters seem to leap about in time and space, plot points can get dropped and instead of riding down the flowing river of the writer’s consciousness with a pina colada in hand, the reader is riding shotgun in Monster Truck Crash Rally Death Match with an icy beverage all over their lap.
So how do we kick ass and take names as far as learning to transition well?
The plot and characters should always be in motion. Every action, every thought, every emotion should all draw the reader forward, deeper into the story. As you write, always think movement. Are the stakes rising, are the characters acting? Does each piece of information deepen the reader’s understanding of what is at stake, and what the character must face?
Each sentence should form part of the picture and contribute, naturally lead to the next. I’m not just talking sentence structure here, I’m talking about substance. Every word, phrase and idea must not be wasted. Select each carefully, with intent. This will create a natural and compelling flow.
Transitioning Between Scenes
Not every scene ends with a chapter break, so we need to have a little bag of tricks to get characters from one place to the next. First and foremost, always know where the ending point of your scene is. Every scene should have a natural beginning, middle and end…the end being where the character resolves to take a new action or where he finds himself in worse trouble than at the start. We don’t want those characters taking it easy, no sir. Bring on the hot irons of conflict & consequence!
TIP: When starting a new scene, be quick about anchoring the reader in the setting and let them know who’s viewpoint it is, especially if your book has two or more POV characters. Nothing turns a reader off faster than not knowing where they are, and who is speaking/narrating. A new scene should never feel like Musical Chairs–the reader should always know which POV they are experiencing.
Angela’s Tricksy Bag of, erm, Tricks
—Keep a Weather Eye on Your Story
This is an excellent way to show a passage of time and get the character moving. No one can hang out at the park for long on a wintery January morning, not unless hypothermia is on the menu. Ditto with a character noticing how the cloud cover is stealing the sun’s heat, a storm is brewing or how the sun’s position changes as it crosses the sky. When your character takes note, the reader does too. Time is fluid.
The character’s thought process can easily allow you to skip ahead to a new scene. By letting thoughts (or worries!) drift to a future event (getting off work, meeting up with someone for a date that night, a ball game on the weekend, etc) end the scene, it allows you to jump right into that event in the scene that follows without causing a ripple in the story’s flow.
—A Nice Fish Slap to the Face
Remember those high stakes we talked about? Well, action and pressure often leads to mistakes, which leads to nasty, sticky consequences. A great way to transition to a new scene is to show the character having to face the result of his earlier poor choice.
—Routine, Routine, Routine
No matter how wild and crazy things get, some routines are rarely broken. The responsibilities of school and work, waking up, going to bed, mealtimes…if you need to, you can use these (but don’t slow the pace!) to show a leap forward to a new scene. But remember some routines can be overused (such as starting a chapter with the character waking up). Instead, try showing them start the day brushing their teeth or heading out the door to school or work. Take care that transitions don’t turn into long coffee breaks, either. Each setting choice should contribute directly to story and character development and have meaning, not provide a reason to show a long internalization that probably is not needed anyway.
There’s nothing wrong with having a good old-fashioned ticking clock to get a character out of one scene and onto the next one. If your character is on a schedule (and really, who isn’t?) they will be very aware of the time and can easily communicate this through their thoughts, actions or dialogue. No one likes to be late, right? Again, just be careful of not overusing this trick to get in and out of all your scenes.
Obviously, this is only one to use if you’re using multiple POVs. If you’re at a loss over which POV to use in a scene, it should be told by the person with the most to lose or gain from the action & events of the scene.
Need some more ideas on how to use the world around your characters to transition? Check out The Bookshelf Muse’s Symbolism Entry on The Passage of Time