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?

Where Do You Insert Dialogue?

Someone asked me where they should insert dialogue into the novel they were writing. I went blank for a moment, unable to comprehend the question. Insert dialogue? To a great extent, dialogue is the story.  The most personal way people interact is by dialogue, and a story is or should be about people interacting,  about relationships. Even  action-oriented stories come down to a basic relationship: the hero vs the villain. 

A better question might be where to insert exposition, but even that is a specious question. Nothing in a novel should be inserted. Each element should flow one into the other, making a cohesive whole. I’ve heard people say that they’ve finished writing their novel, now all they have left is to go back and insert the symbolism. If you have to insert something for the sake of inserting it, it’s better to leave it out. Symbols, like other elements should flow out of the story. 

Novels need to balanced. Dialogue interspersed with exposition or action makes for a more interesting story than dialogue or exposition or action alone. A novel that is mostly dialogue seems lightweight; a novel with too much exposition feels heavy-handed; a novel that is all action gets boring after a while. 

One way to make sure the elements flow together is to know what you are trying to accomplish. What kind of story are you writing? What is your story goal? What is your premise? What is the core conflict? Once you know the core of your story, you can make sure every element connects to it. Sometimes you won’t know the core until you’ve finished the first draft. In which case, just write, let the words flow out of you and into the story. Then, when the draft is finished, read it to see what you have. Do any themes jump out at you? What is the gist of the story (the core conflict)? How can you use the various story elements help you bring out that conflict? Does every action have a reaction? Does every reaction have a cause? Which element will bring the conflict into sharper focus? If a particular conflict is a physical one, then action interspersed with terse comments is best. If a particular conflict is personal, then dialogue interspersed with bits of action is best. 

Where to insert dialogue, then, is not the real question. The real question is what do you want to say, and how do you want to say it?