How to Make Transitions From Scene to Scene in Fiction

At it’s most simplistic, a scene is an action sequence that begins with a character trying to attain a goal, is further developed when someone or something tries to prevent the character from attaining the goal, and ends when either the goal is reached or disaster ensues. Either way, we should learn something new about the character by the end of the scene.

A novel is a seamless flow of story from scene to scene without interruption. At least it should appear that way. In actuality, time sometimes passes between one scene and the next, and it’s the way the writer handles transitions that makes the story flow.

Authors used to write long pieces of narrative and exposition linking scenes, but that isn’t necessary, and in today’s fast-paced world is a serious drawback. Readers want to plunge immediately into a new scene without being distracted by boring discourses.

One of the easiest and perhaps most effective ways of making a scene transition is simply to skip a space and start the new scene. (Or rather, start in an interesting place in a new scene.) “I’m dead,” Scott said. He lay in bed under the blue patchwork comforter Gracie had made him, his head turned toward the window.

Another easy way is to start with the grandmother of all scene transitions: Later. Just that one word. Or you can add a bit of time, A month later, Scott fell from a high beam.

Another good transition word is After. For example: After Scott had been pronounced dead, after he had been cleaned and shrouded in a white blanket, after he’d been hauled away in a purple body bag like so much garbage, the hospice nurse remained to comfort Gracie.

Or you can use seasons: In the spring, she buried Scott’s ashes beneath the dead willow.

On Facebook, a writer asked if it was okay to jump forward six months in a novel. My response: ‘It’s perfectly acceptable to jump ahead, and in a lot of cases, it’s the best thing for the book as long as you do the transition right. That way you keep hitting the high points of the story. If nothing significant happens in those six months (and you need the time to pass) then it’s better to jump ahead rather than bore your readers to death with unimportant events and dialogue. It’s easy enough to do — just start the chapter with “Six months have passed since such and such happened, and now, etc.” Might not be elegant, but it gets the point across.’

Other authors disagreed with my transition suggestion, saying it was too much author intrusion, that it would pull people out of the story, but I do know it wouldn’t pull people out of the story as much as six months worth of nothing happening.

This isn’t the exact wording as my inelegant response, but it’s basically the same thing: During the following spring, as the second anniversary of Scott’s death drew near, Gracie realized . . . again . . . he would never come back. He was gone forever, and since grief hadn’t killed her, much to her shock, she knew she’d have to do something to get her life back.

These are just a few ways I made the transition from scene to scene in a short story I recently wrote for an anthology that Second Wind Publishing will release this spring. Since my 2,100-word story spanned twenty-five years, I needed a lot of transitions. Without the transitions taking me from scene to scene, all I would have had is a long, boring narration of an uneventful marriage that ended in death.

So let’s talk about scenes and transitions from scene to scene. How do you personally write scenes and make transitions?

3 Responses to “How to Make Transitions From Scene to Scene in Fiction”

  1. Rod Marsden Says:

    Of course there is always ending a chapter and starting a new one as a form of transition. This is something I sometimes do. After is also something I use along with meanwhile. In the end all the transitions, all the scene changes have to add up. In the book I am working on at the moment I break up action taking place in a conference room simply by having my main character go off to the floor’s kitchenette for a glass of water. A new scene unfolds while she is in the kitchenette and the reader is refreshed by it. Hence when she returns to the conference room to do more interviews her perspective has changed and possibly that of the reader as well. I suppose there is that seamless flow with novels but I also like the motion of the waves to be a little uncertain as you read and it all amounts to seamless story telling only when the reader finishes reading. I don’t want to be too predictable. If the reader can second guess me all the way and be spot on I fear it will be a dull read for them. My thoughts at any rate.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You’re right — starting a new chapter is a great way to show passage of time.

      The flow of a story takes place in readers’ minds. In actuality, we know the stops and starts, the direction changes, the POV changes, but if all the elements fit together, the story will appear to flow. The stories I like best are those that totally surprise me at the end, but still the end seems right and inevitable.

  2. Book Bits #123 – NOPA, Marilynne Robinson’s essays, Magazine reviews, ‘The Flame Alphabet’ | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions Says:

    […] How To: How to Make Transitions From Scene to Scene in Fiction, by Pat Bertram – “At it’s most simplistic, a scene is an action sequence that begins […]

Please leave a comment. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: