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Mastering Scene Transitions

December 16, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 14, 2011

pencil in handA scene transition takes characters and readers to a new location, a new time, or a new point of view. Transitions can also be used to show a character’s change in heart or frame of mind.

Transitions are important in fiction because the writer can’t possibly portray or account for every moment in a character’s day, week, or life. A story may stretch over years—readers don’t need to know what happened every minute of those years.

So, we use scene transitions to skip periods of time or to change to a new location in the story, glossing over events that happen between the new and old times or locations.

Scene Change, New Chapter
Scene transitions can be seamlessly inserted at the beginnings of chapters since readers expect a transition between chapters. In fact, you don’t need to write a detailed transition if you ended the previous chapter with a teaser of what’s to come.

Take this example:

He couldn’t wait to see his brother’s expression when he showed up at the wedding with Paul’s hated ex-wife.

If this is the end of chapter three, chapter four can easily begin at the wedding with little explanation or description, especially if the writer has already provided details about the place and time of the wedding. Even if he hasn’t, we only need a simple setup:

Mark walked into the hotel’s ballroom, his former sister-in-law on his arm. He smiled when he saw his brother’s smile freeze into a gremlin’s glare.

Of course, the setup at the end of chapter three could be for a scene that’s delayed and chapter four could take us somewhere completely unexpected. In which case, a clear scene transition is needed.

Paul stood before his office window, tossing his lucky baseball from hand to hand. He knew his brother Mark had something planned, something that would shock or alarm him. But Mark hadn’t tipped his hand. If he was going to do it, whatever it was, before Paul left for his honeymoon, it would have to be soon. The wedding was in five hours. Certainly even Mark wouldn’t embarrass him at his wedding.

Scene transitions need to identify place, time, and viewpoint character, especially if there’s been a change in any of the three. If the new scene has a change in mood or tone, that should also be established right away.

If the viewpoint character has changed, identify the new viewpoint character right off by naming him.

Time and place can be established in any number of ways. By

  • naming the place
  • describing the place
  • describing the event
  • mentioning the time or day or date
  • showing a character doing something we already knew he’d be doing at a set time or in a particular place

Scene changes within chapters
Not all scene changes occur between chapters. Sometimes you need a scene change within a chapter.

For a visual aid, add ###, centered on a line, to indicate a scene transition in a manuscript. (Such symbols are often changed to extra line spaces in printed books.)

Use the techniques mentioned above to identify the scene change. If it’s only point of view that’s changing, be sure to identify the new viewpoint character immediately. (A change in point of view qualifies as a change in scene because the reader is in the head of a different character—different thoughts and emotions. There’s probably a different tone to this section as well, as you’d expect with a different character’s personality both coloring and filtering the reader’s perceptions.)

Unless you’re a famous author who makes a bundle of money for your publisher, do not change point of view in the middle of a scene. Never change POV within a paragraph.

You want your readers to flow with the fiction; you never want them stuttering or getting lost. You certainly don’t want any of them to have to reread because you failed to provide enough scene markers. Each time a reader stops reading because he doesn’t understand or has gotten lost or has to reread a passage, he is pulled out of the fiction you’ve crafted. You lose the reader’s trust when he is repeatedly yanked from the fantasy world he’s trying to become lost in.

Changing POV without notice and within scenes causes two major problems. First, it confuses the reader. He has to halt the fiction to figure out why Eugene is putting on perfume when the author hasn’t clearly indicated we’re now in Francine’s head. The reader has to change from enjoying the imaginary—using his creative side—to figuring out why something is so—using his analytical side.

And second, the reader loses the connection he had with the viewpoint character. You work to create connections for your reader, so he can step into the mind and heart and life of a character. If you’ve done it well, the reader will read as if he’s experiencing the events on the page.

Each time you change POV, however, the reader is pulled out of one character’s head and dumped into another’s. He must reorient himself, and this can take time. It can also be enough of a distraction that he puts down the book, no longer lost in the fictional world.

You can change point of view—readers are used to it. But do it well. Give the reader warning. And don’t jump POV from character to character to character within the same scene.

*******

Transitions can be short. A two-word scene transition? That night…

They can be as long as a couple of paragraphs. (But shouldn’t extend much beyoond that. If they’re too long, they become info dumps and/or long stretches of telling when instead the story should have moved to showing.)

A scene transition is not a scene in itself; it’s the narration between scenes. Yet a novel is a series of scenes. Too much narration turns a novel into a report.

Scene transitions can be pure narrative, a recitation of who did what and when. Narration is often discouraged since it’s telling rather than showing, but narration is quite useful for transitions. It’s an efficient way to indicate a change in place or time and provide details without drawing out the information into a scene of its own.

Uses of scene transitions

  • to provide description
  • to break tension
  • to slow the pace
  • to skip unimportant events or time periods
  • to create or switch mood or tone
  • to advance the time
  • to change location
  • to change viewpoint character

While scene transitions can be used to change the tone, they could be used just as easily to maintain tone. That is, if your story is humorous, keep your transitions humorous too. If the tone is dry or sarcastic, write dry or sarcastic transitions.

These tips should help to keep your scene transitions on track.

*******

Examples of transitions using the same character but written for different styles of stories:

  • Jan raced across town, her heart pounding, knowing she’d never reach her mother in time.
  • Jan raced across town to meet her mother—it was a command request from the Queen of Outrageous Demands.  Jan was so keen to meet her mother that she stopped at only three department stores, had her nails done—fingers and toes—and waited in line 45 minutes for the car inspection she’d put off for at least a month before knocking on her mother’s double-glazed doors.
  • Only a week later, Jan stood at her mother’s door, gifts in hand and excuses at the ready.
  • Jan arrived at her mother’s apartment two days later and five pounds heavier. The idea of facing the woman who’d birthed her, failed to nurture her, and often forget her always turned on Jan’s need-to-eat gene.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

32 Responses to “Mastering Scene Transitions”

  1. Jackie Rod says:

    Thank you for the insightful information on scene transitions. As a newbie, it has been difficult for me to know exactlly when a scene or chapter should end. :)

  2. Jackie, I’m glad you found this useful. Good luck as you work on your first manuscripts.

  3. Beth Hull says:

    Thank you for this. I just received a reader’s report from an agent and was entirely confused re: the transition problems mentioned. Now I’ll be much more confident as I tackle revisions!

    I also must say, the similarity of our names is a little eerie.

  4. Beth, I thought I’d left myself a comment for a moment there.

    Have fun with those revisions. And when you’re working on scene transitions, just remember what you need to accomplish with the transition and make sure to accomplish that. Also, make sure your scene and chapter transitions don’t all take on the same style or formula. Include variety even in transitions.

    I wish you great success.

    • Beth Hull says:

      Thanks, Beth – I appreciate it! I definitely need to work on variety. I noticed I had quite a few scenes opening with the character waking up, which, as we all know, can get very boring.

  5. Putting a character to sleep or waking him up is a tough sell, the going to sleep part especially. You don’t want readers joining the characters in slumber. But now that you’re aware, you’ll start looking for other ways to open scenes.

  6. Jade says:

    Hi there
    Thanks a lot for the information.

    I’m currently writing my first novel and am having a few problems with scene changes within chapters. The Novel I’m writing I plan on publishing as an eBook initially and having it printed as a book depending on the response I get from it as an eBook. You have said: ‘For a visual aid, add ###, centered on a line, to indicate a scene transition in a manuscript. (Such symbols are often changed to extra line spaces in printed books.)’, I’d like to know if this would be applicable to an ebook too or not.

    Thanks!

    Jade

  7. Jade, for the e-book, since you are basically your own publisher, you’ll want to put the line space in instead.

    I know there are several online guides for e-book publishing to help writers with formatting. Check out at least one of those for specifics.

    And here’s to great success for your novel.

  8. Thanks for this article, I actually found it VERY informative. I’m currently working on my first draft of my first novel and found the need to transition scenes in the middle of a chapter. I didn’t think it was going to be possible without confusing the reader but you gave great ideas. :)

    Thanks thanks thanks!

    Krissy

  9. Krissy, I’m glad to have been of help. Good luck with the first novel—I’m certain you’re having a great time with it.

  10. Judith says:

    Hi Beth,

    Great site. I have a question. What is the proper writing format and transitional devices in a novel for a character’s fantasy and changes in POV within it?

    Many thanks.

    • Judith, you can treat a fantasy the same way you’d treat a dream and a flashback.

      This means you can introduce the fantasy by showing the character knowing that he’s embarking on a fantasy moment, with wording that would introduce the fantasy scene . . .

      Jake closed his eyes and immediately felt himself in New Orleans, surrounded by the wail of a single alto sax and the humid heat of a Cajun night.

      Jake wished he was in Paris. He could almost taste the air, that alluring aroma that hung over Renee’s flat.

      Jake stared at the actors on the stage. But what he wanted to see were the fields of sasson wheat blowing in the breeze on Nedra Five. He allowed the words of the play to fade as he imagined . . .

      ————
      At the end of the scene, show the character recovering himself from the fantasy with whatever’s appropriate. Is he embarrassed that he missed something in his real world while he fantasized? Did he miss his highway exit and go 40 miles out of his way and now need to turn around? Did he give himself away to others?

      A second option is to use physical scenes breaks to mark the start and end of a fantasy, just as you would any other scene. But it’s likely that you want to show that the scene is a fantasy. So give the reader some kind of clue at the beginning of the scene so he knows that what follows is a fantasy.

      As for a change of POV in a fantasy scene? It’s not likely that you’d change the POV—a fantasy is typically only in the mind of one person. Does the character imagine himself as several people in the fantasy? If so, it’s still the same character.

      Now, if we’re talking two characters sharing a fantasy in their minds because something in your story world allows that to happen, that would be a little different. To show a switch in POV, you’d do it just as you would in any other scene, which usually means a scene break. If the scene is fairly long, a scene break would be the way to go. If the scene is short but you need to show it from the minds of two characters, try it without a physical scene break. Show the characters passing the thoughts between them, maybe with an awareness that they’re sharing the fantasy. One way to show a switch would be for one character to physically touch the other and for the second character to then be the viewpoint character. You would use the name of the second character and his or her thoughts to signal that the viewpoint duties had changed hands . . .

      He couldn’t resist. He had to touch her. He reached his hand toward her face.

      Lanie lifted her head when Tomas stroked her cheek. She’d couldn’t believe the tenderness in his gaze, the power in his touch.

      ———–

      Do keep in mind that this is what’s known as head-hopping, which you normally do not want to do. But if they’re sharing a fantasy, this may fit right in with your setup. If they know they’re in a fantasy together and both have a consciousness, this might work.

      Does that help?

  11. Hello,
    I’m writing an ebook series consisting of short stories which I have not published quite yet. But the first short story ebook will be out Dec. All summed together, the eBooks will make up a novel.

    I had a question maybe people are willing to help me with.

    I’ve written the first two ebooks 1st POV from only one character’s point of view. I’m editing the third now, and I want to switch between 2 characters in different scenes. In trying to consistent with first 2 ebooks, is there any way to do this while using 1st person?

    Can a writer start a scene saying person’s name, “Ace walked to the creek looking down”, then switch to first person, “I stared into the flowing current, feeling lost.”

    Is this an allowable method?

    • A good question, Bryce.

      You always want to start a new scene in the POV in which the rest of the scene will be written. So, no, if Ace and I are the same person, you can’t write the two sentences this way. If the scene is first-person, it needs to start that way from the top of the scene.

      That said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with switching between two first-person narrators. Each chapter—or even back-to-back scenes—could be told from the viewpoint of different first-person characters. Sometimes writers identify the narrator through a chapter heading or subheading, but there are other ways of identifying the narrator. But your instinct is spot on—you do want to let the reader know right away whose viewpoint she is reading.

      Options to identify multiple first-person narrators at a scene change—
      ~ Use a word only one character would use.
      ~ Use a sentence construction only one of the characters would use.
      ~ Show the character focused on something that immediately identifies which character it is.
      ~ Have another character call the narrator by name.
      ~ Have the narrator think of the other narrator by name so readers will know this narrator is not the named one.
      ~ Have the character think or talk to himself by name. But don’t fall into the habit of always having the character do this. This practice of talking to self can get annoying for the reader. And most real people don’t do it often. Save it for unusual circumstances or for emotional outbursts.

      Does that help?

  12. Dan Proulx says:

    I am working on a novel of my own, as I have always had a love for writing. Over the years, I found myself starting and dropping various writing projects, and have always found myself terrified of scene transitions regardless of the project (mainly transitions that connect two different locations together). From what I have read on the site, I feel that you provided some key tips that will help cope with my “transitional fears” more effectively. I do plan to re-read through this page thoroughly, and appreciate the encouraging words of wisdom.

  13. Xilus says:

    Hello Beth,
    I am rather new to writing but it is one of my passions. I’ve read the article and found it helpful but I do have a question. I think you mentioned it when replying to another person but I’m still confused as to how you would switch between more than one character in a chapter, if you’re even supposed to do that. I have two main characters in my story and I want to explain what each is doing without beginning a new chapter but I can’t get it to flow. Any help would be very much appreciated.

    • Xilus, the simplest way to make the change is to write a scene change. Use a visual scene break—the number symbol or a series of three asterisks—to show a change of scene or a change of viewpoint character/narrator. You can easily do that midchapter without causing a problem.

      You don’t want to bounce back and forth between viewpoint characters multiple times per chapter, of course, so decide when you’ll switch and then just do it. Leave the first character’s viewpoint scene with a hook, just as you’d do at the end of the chapter, and introduce the new section by showing us who the new viewpoint character is.

      So, for example, at a party, we have Alice and John. The first scene is in John’s viewpoint and the second is in Alice’s.

      ————–

      Downing the rest of his beer, John gave the room a final check. No, no one worth checking out. Coming had been a waste of time, as he’d known it would be.

      Why’d he ever listen to Jake’s wife? Some psychic she was. Meet his destiny at this lame party? Right. That’s why he was jogging for the door, the same guy he’d been when he’d arrived—alone and frustrated.

      His destiny had obviously mislaid her party invitation.

      #

      Alice slipped off her coat and handed it to the coat-check girl with a murmured thanks. She inhaled a deep breath, turned toward the ballroom with a firm resolve, and strode forward. Before she’d gone half a dozen steps, some guy barreled into her, the momentum carrying her into the wall at her back. Once she caught her breath—and the stars cleared from her vision—she lifted her chin.

      “You,” she whispered.

      The guy raised a brow. Then he smiled, long and slow.

      Maybe the stars hadn’t cleared from her vision. ‘Cause the guy who’d just run into her—the guy still pressed up against her body—was the man from her dreams.

      Not the man of her dreams; that was Andy. But the guy smiling at her and only now backing out of her personal space was the man she’d been dreaming about every night for the past two weeks.

      “Tell me your name is Destiny,” her dream man said.

      —————-

      Does that give you an idea of what you can do?

      The characters don’t even have to be together. You can change setting and advance forward through time at a scene break midchapter. You can show a scene across the world. Just remember to include setting details—time (or time passing since the previous scene or time passing since we’ve been with the viewpoint character) and place—and the identity of the viewpoint character.

      If you have a specific example, feel free to share it.

  14. Adrianna says:

    Thank you! I struggle with transitions, and this helps.

  15. Sammi says:

    Thank you for this very informative guide!

    I am working on a draft of a novel and in my first chapter I am trying to convey changes in scenes without the usual kind of transitions. My transition in my first chapter is as follows: a group of kids are introduced and are talking, then they see a man in a car then I introduce the man in the car and reveal his thoughts as he drives across town, and another group of kids sees the man in the car and I switch to those kids and introduce them… Is it okay to have this man in the car serve as the transition between the two groups of kids when I am trying to switch the action from the 1st group of kids to the 2nd? Or is it too much on the reader to keep in his or her head? Too much information and too many characters?

    Thank you so much!!!

    • Sammi, this might work. But if you’re only using the man as a viewpoint character for one or two scenes and then you’re going to do the same thing with other characters, using them as viewpoint characters, that’s a lot of character heads you’re dumping readers into.

      Almost anything can work, so I don’t want to say it can’t, but what do you gain and what do you lose by doing this? Would an omniscient narrator work for you? Had you considered that? You can still show us random character’s thoughts but it’s done in a more systematic way.

      But if your driver isn’t a character who will feature in the story and he won’t get to do the viewpoint duties for any other scene, there’s not really much reason for readers to hear his thoughts and follow him across town. There is absolutely nothing wrong to simply change scenes from one group of kids to the next. Use an action or an image or just a word if you want to have some kind of connection between the two groups.

      Does that help?

      • Sammi says:

        Thank you Beth! It does help!

        Your comments opened my eyes to the bigger picture. I do plan to use the character in the car again in the novel. I think the best thing to do is for me to write the scenes with and without him to see what works best. More work but bigger reward :)

  16. Paulina says:

    Thanks for the article! It was just what I was looking for and more. Although I do have a question, because for the story I’m writing the scene change takes place a month in the future, and I’m writing a quick recap over what happened in that month because it is essential to the story. I can’t come up with anything less cliche than ”that brings me to today ” when I’m done with the recap. Any advice? Thanks in advance!

    • Paulina, there are an infinite number of ways to write transitions. I’ll include a few to give you some ideas.

      Just keep in mind that they can be fairly short—a line or two—or they can be longer. You just don’t want them going on for pages. Only include the details of that month that are vital to the story.

      It looks like you’ve got a first-person narrator, so how about—

      I spent the next month not thinking about Melvin. I didn’t think about him the four days I crammed for the CPA exam. I didn’t think about him when I took my nephews to the beach. And I certainly didn’t think about him when I went on my honeymoon. But after thirty-two days of not thinking about him, I was ready to give him my full attention. So I drove to his house, only to find his driveway filled with police cars.

      ——–

      Although I dreaded the trip, I visited my father, as I had been promising to do for six months. That I’d also promised to visit for the six months before that, well, that I don’t mention. And the trip wasn’t bad. We caught up on family news—the kind not featured on CNN. And I helped him shore up a couple of fences. We also worked on his Corvette, the one he always promised to give me. I didn’t want it, so the fact that I still didn’t own the heap at my age was no big deal; who wanted a car that didn’t run?

      After two weeks we were in a groove, completing chores with ease. After two weeks and a day, we were fighting again. And after two weeks, three days, and five hours, we were once again not speaking.

      I left early and toured the coast in a rented Maserati.

      Good thing I’d rented that villa, just in case. Just in case was always a sure thing with my dad.

      But now I was home and ready to face Kinsey. Kinsey was no sure thing.

      ——–

      December was a solid month. We booked enough events that we’d be busy well into January. We even recouped our losses from November when the freak storms ruined so many events. But I was drained and looking forward to a long weekend alone before my sisters flew in for the week. We always spent our birthdays together, no matter what else was going on. Hey, Mom and Dad had celebrated New Year’s Eve the year of our birth toasting our arrivals one after the other, flabbergasted to find they had three new daughters rather than only one. We could do no less to celebrate the day.
      But I was the one dumbfounded this year when I opened my door—four days before the big day—to find my brothers-in-law standing on my porch, faces haggard and eyes red.

      “Thank God you’re okay, Val,” Roger said.

      They both hugged me, pulling me inside at the same time.

      “What’s wrong?” Why were my sisters’ husbands in my house?

      “Janey and Liz have been kidnapped.”

      ——–

      I spent the last days of summer not at the beach with my friends, but mucking out stalls. Building character, my parents said about my punishment.

      Keeping silent, I allowed my character to build. But the moment I fulfilled my quota of days served, I was gone. And now, two weeks later, I intended to put that character building to the test as I stood in front of a cute bank teller, one hand shading my face, the other on the pistol in my pocket.

      ———————————-

      Does this give you some ideas?

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