There are a lot of hidden trials in writing, and few of these are so integral as the scene transition. Every book has dozens of scenes, and we’ve got to get from each one to the next, so there are at least as many scene transitions in a book as there are scenes… but we don’t always pay close attention to how well our transitions are doing their jobs.
What makes a good transition?
Here are some things that make a scene transition great – whether it be a literally written transition, or a line break between scenes. The rules are about the same for both styles.
It’s clear. Transitions must clearly wrap up the preceding scene, and clearly establish the next. A good one gives resolution to the action of the first, while providing detail to the setting of the second.
It’s not too sudden. If a scene transition is too abrupt for the pace of the story, your reader will mentally trip on it, and it will take them a minute to understand where they are in space and time. The longer the preceding scene and the more intense its action, the longer your lines of transition may need to be to help convert us over. Even in the case of cliffhangers, we can’t feel as if the transition is too sudden. We must be led between them in a way that makes sense, while also still trying to be brief.
It’s usually not a line break. Granted, this is no hard-and-fast rule, but if all your scenes are short and separated by line breaks, your work is going to feel discontinuous (I am guilty of this in my own early drafts). Often, you can easily connect two scenes with just a few lines of text.
It does work. You can use scene transitions, especially textual ones, to highlight something else about a character, or a setting, or the plot. When I fill in line breaks, I like to fix weaknesses my beta readers point out. For example, I added the sample below in a place where a line break used to be. Now look at all the work it does for the character of the person K-1 is sensing:
K-1 blinked and stepped backwards, her head tilting back sharply. Passing overhead through a corridor was a presence she knew all too well.
She changed direction and rushed toward a nearby stairway, her face still lifted to the ceiling. The presence rang of residual heat waves off the distant plains at night. It billowed toward her like damp cloth hung to dry in the shade.
It connects. You’d think this was a no-brainer, but it can actually be quite tough. How do you move, say, from a crime scene to a spa? Even with a line break, that’s a drastic change in connotation, not just visuals. You’ll need to lead us in with something that connects the two scenes. Your detective could rub his face and say, Damn. I need that spa visit more than ever and follow that with a line break. Or, you could work off of the disparity of the two places and say, He looked at his gun, long and sleek and shining, and thought of the black stones at the bottom of the hot spring. He holstered the Glock, and two hours later he left it in the car and met up with Lorraine at the spa.
It is invisible. A good transition does not draw attention to itself: it’s just another section of the sidewalk you must pass over on your walk into town. As a writer, you’re likely to miss your jagged transitions, but a good beta reader is bound to pick up on them. Listen to their feedback, and study how other authors do it in their published work. Scene transitions are underrated and understudied, but they are a valuable asset to any author who knows how to use them.
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