Being a Better Writer: The Art of Scene Transitions

Or: Yet Another Way to Manage Pacing.

Welcome back readers! How are things going with you? Well and healthy I hope? Washing your hands? Using a mask? Doing your part?

I hope so. Globally, it’s still a pandemic, and we shouldn’t forget that.

Anyway, I’ve got no other news, so let’s just jump into today’s topic, which is another reader request, and talk about scene transitions.

Now, I’m going to kind of do a two-fer here, because I might as well. I’m going to talk about both in-chapter transitions, the kind of thing where you get that little asterisk or line divider like so—

* * *

—and then jump into the new action elsewhere, as well as ending chapter transitions today. Because, well, both are kind of similar.

But we’ll start with in-chapter transitions, just as soon as we hit a transition of our own …

Okay! So, let’s jump into chapter transitions, starting with the most basic starting point: What is a transition, and why do we use it?

Actually, it’s pretty simple, at least in those regards. A transition is, to be somewhat scientific, a change of state. Obviously, that’s not quite the same as a transition in writing, since we’re not jumping mediums, but it is similar. A transition in writing is more of a locational jump. Which can be, in the interest of covering all bases, a jump in time, position, events, etc.

Let me approach this with a direct example: Say you have three characters that are at a crime scene, investigating something, and then they find a major clue! But there’s a catch: this clue will need to be analyzed at their lab, miles and miles away.

Which means that suddenly the writer has a choice. They could show the characters leaving the scene of the crime, piling into their car, driving the whole distance to the lab, finding a parking place, and then arriving at the lab. Or, they could use a transition, having the characters walk out of the crime scene and then jumping ahead to them arriving at the lab or even getting the test results.

Now, I want to stress something extremely vital here. So important it’s going in bold. Ready? Here goes. Neither answer is the wrong answer. It all comes down to your pacing and what you’re doing with those scenes.

I wanted to emphasize this to make it perfectly clear that just because you can use a transition doesn’t mean that you have to … or even should! Scene transitions are a tool in the writer’s toolbox, but like any other tool they want to be used with the proper application.

To be more specific, transitions are a pacing tool, meaning that your use of a transition as a tool in your writing is heavily dependent on what sort of pacing you’re going for.

Actually, let me be a bit more precise when I say that transitions are a pacing tool, and clarify that a transition is a tool for keeping pacing momentum. It’s used, in stories and film, to keep the audience right where the action is.

Going back to the example above, with the reader following a group that’s looking for clues and then finds a major one that needs to be analyzed. Finding that clue is a major “up” for the reader. Things are happening! The reader is, if we’re doing things properly, engaged! Big clue! What could it mean?

However, what happens if we then follow that same group as they drive across the city, speculating? Well, that “up” will level off and decrease for a bit as the reader realizes “Okay, traveling, not much happening here with that new thing they found.”

Now, because of that lull the reader may decide “Well, that’s a good stopping point,” set the book down, and go do something else, coming back later to see what the clue was. Which isn’t bad per se … but may not be what you want you reader to do during that point of the story.

Transitioning, however, allows you to keep the “up” going and extend that “high moment” without any stops. The characters find the important clue! Big jump in reader interest and involvement. It’s a “high.” “We need to analyze this!” a character says. High continues. And bam! Scene transition to the lab, fifteen minutes later, pulling out the results.

With no break or slow-down, the high is kept, and the chances of the reader pausing in their reading are kept low. Why would they stop? They’re about to get answers!

This is the reason transitions exist. In books, in films, audio dramas, games … really any form of entertainment. They’re a tool that is used to meter out pacing.

And again, I stress that it is a tool that can be used, but also set aside at the discretion of the author based on what they are doing with the story. You don’t have to have the transition jump from the finding of the clue to the analyzing of it. Maybe that’s not the place for that particular pace. Maybe you want to keep them in suspense, or use the car ride to the lab to refresh the reader’s mind on the clues so far and what they might mean.

Now, a side note here. I use gripping, high energy moments to demonstrate the use of transitions as a pacing tool, but they can be used in slower-paced chapters and scenes as well. The point of a transition is to preserve momentum of any speed, even slow and relaxed. Now back to what I was saying.

Transitions are a tool, not a requirement. That said, they are a useful tool, so let’s talk about putting them to use (or not).

So how does one use a transition? Well, remember what I said about transitions being a pacing tool? The purpose here with a transition is to preserve momentum and pace. So if you’re thinking about using a transition, whether or not you need one should be your first question. Is there a pace to preserve? What are you skipping over? Why?

You might be thinking “Well, this is kind of obvious, yeah,” but I ask it for a reason: How will you preserve that momentum with your transition? See, a transition isn’t just a matter of dropping a

into the text and calling it good. You need to consider how to lead into the transition as well as what the next starting scene will do to continue with the pacing you’ve established.

Let’s start with that first bit on leading into the transition. How do you do that? Well, recall above that I said we want to keep the reader rolling along, and not set the book down when they spot that little gap, right? So what we need to do is end the prior section on just some sort of little boost to the next section.

Think of it like a small ramp in a race of some kind. Your reader is going along but whoop, here’s a small gap! So you give them a little bit of a ramp to “hop” over the gap with.

Think of it like a mini stinger, a sort of “loose note” that makes the reader think “Why stop here?” and make it past the little gap to the next event.

For example, with the clue transition, you could have the final bit of text before it be dialogue like “Let’s go back to the lab and take a closer look at this. I have a feeling it’s going to answer all our questions.” Tantalizing indeed, and the possibility of getting questions answered is the kind of little “ramp” that would help a reader jump over that gap to the next scene.

Now, there’s a second part to this. You will want to consider the landing as well. Where the reader hits after the jump. For example, if you ended on the line above, but then the next section started with “Well, that was a waste of time!” the reader may go “Oh, I’m not getting an answer” and decide that it’s a good spot to take a break. Not much of a landing.

But something like “Wait a minute, how is this possible?” on the other hand … well, that’s something that grabs the reader’s focus. Ever seen something like a BMX race and noted that after each jump is a ramp for the bikers to land on that guides them back into the course? Same logic applies here: If you’re “boosting” the reader over that gap, having a “ramp” of some kind to ease them back on track after the jump is a good idea. Remember, the concept here is to keep things consistent so that the reader maintains the momentum rather than slowing down or stepping away. So how you start the scene after a transition really matters just as much as how you slipped into a transition to begin with.

Now, before we call it good on this topic, I want to discuss one more thing. Well, actually two, since I can already hear a question coming from some of you readers asking “But how will I do this for my transition? How do I keep that momentum and find the right words or phrases to end and start on?”

There’s no way for me to answer that. The best I can do is say “practice.” Get out there and write! And again, despite using “high energy” examples here because they’re memorable and easy to see, the point of a transition is to preserve momentum, not be some sort of high momentum. Your transitions can be more laid back, or whatever the pacing your trying to preserve is.

So yeah, I can’t tell you what to do for your specific story. All I can say is that with practice you’ll learn the best way to use this tool, like many others.

The second thing I want to say is that the sharper-eyed among you may have seen a similarity here between transitions and the endings/beginnings of chapters, especially in the latter parts of a book when things have ramped up. Don’t feel out of place if so, since you’re not wrong. A transition is very much like an end of book chapter gap, where you want to keep the character reading. So similar, in fact, that some books forgo chapters altogether because transitions work just as well, so why bother.

In a way, this means that yes, chapters endings and beginnings can be seen as larger forms of transitions, with similar logic applying. Which means that conversely, if you’re having trouble with transitions, imagine it as a smaller chapter break and look at it from that angle. It may help you smooth it out.

And that’s it! So quick recap: Transitions are a tool in the writer’s toolbox to help move past slow moments in a story so that the momentum of the pacing is kept consistent. When a transition occurs, you’ll want to pay close attention to the “ramps” around the gap so that the reader is carried smoothly from one spot to another. If you’re having trouble, imagine it like a miniature chapter gap near the end of a book where you want the reader to just turn the page and keep going.

Good luck! Now get writing!

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