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?

On Writing: Tell, Don’t Show

In Description, Monica Wood commented: Don’t enslave yourself to showing. “Show don’t tell” is a guideline, not a rule. Sometimes telling is more effective and thrilling as long as the prose is interesting and engaging.”

As a reader, one of my pet hates is when one character is talking to another, and they retell the entire story up to that point, so as a writer, when I get to a place where one character has to tell another what the reader already knows, I write something like, “and Sam told Sally about the woman who tried to kill him and how he ran off instead of trying to find out who it was.” Avoiding repetition is one reason telling is so much better than showing at times. Makes the story move faster. Might not be immortal prose, but it moves the story along.

The worst offenders of the tell, don’t show suggestion are lawyer books. They spend the first half of the book laying out the story, then the second half repeating that story in a courtroom setting. If a reader can skip a whole slew of chapters and not miss a moment of the story, the writer has not done his or her job. If the writer wants to do the courtroom scene, then make sure what is shown is new. Otherwise, simply tell what went on in a few short sentence and get to the good stuff.

Another time telling is better than showing is if a scene has no conflict, no surprises, no twists. If a character sets out to do something and accomplishes it without any problems, then showing is a waste. Just tell it. Don’t build up to  . . . nothing.

A way to know if it’s better to show or to tell is to decide what you want to accomplish with a scene. If the immediacy of a scene is important, show it. If the reactions of a character who was not involved in the scene are most important, then it’s possible to have one character tell the other what happened and then show the character’s emotion.

When writing More Deaths Than One, I worried that I was cheating readers by doing the big disclosure  at the end via letter (in other words, telling), but the importance of the scene lay not in finding out the truth of who Bob was but in the different ways Bob and Kerry reacted to the truth. It was about them and their relationship more than the deeds themselves. It was also about the emotion of the person writing the letter and how that emotion bound all of them together. So basically, the letter was all about telling rather than showing the disclosure, and showing rather than telling the emotion it evoked.

When do you tell instead of show? (I mean you personally, not writers in general.) How do you make it effective and thrilling?

Setting the Scene

Sherilyn Winrose, author of Safe Harbor published by Second Wind Publishing, talks about setting the scene:

I find when I’m writing it is like a movie playing in my head and I tend to get wrapped up in the action, dialog and characters, forgetting to paint the scene. So I find myself going back to add visuals later. Often times more than once. Doing sweeps for clothes, decor and so on.

What are my character’s wearing? Do I have the correct styles, fabrics for the period? Do I know the names of the fabrics, styles I’m using? Sometimes I don’t and have to looking for them or have long chunky sentences.

The Costume Gallery

The Fabric Store

Whether it’s a Regency or a Contemporary setting knowing what you are talking about takes a bit of research. 

What a character wears says as much about her as the way she interacts with other characters. Clothes can give subtle hints to things yet to be revealed, or negate the need to explain she’s modest or eccentric or at the top of fashion.

Where do our character’s live? An Arts and Crafts/Californian bungalow or a  Victorian style house. Do you know the different Victorian architecture styles?  As the author it’s your job to be precise in your settings.

Queen Anne is a specific Victorian type not a generic term for the era.  Queen Ann is my personal favorite.

Dave’s Victorian Houses

Are your characters Frank Lloyd Wright, free from clutter, streamlined? Or are they stuck in the eighties with dripping oil lamps and enormous water bed furniture? Or somewhere in between with Gustov Stickley’s clean lines which lend themselves to a homey feeling consistent with the Arts and Craft movement?

FM4 Furniture Styles

Clem Lambine’s Period Homes

As I see it; there should be nothing in a novel which doesn’t serve the purpose of the story. Whether it’s a chintz tea set, Mission style furniture, the color of the walls, carpet or lack there of.

While they might seem inconsequential, what you dress your story with adds layers to characters and the mood of the story. Can you imagine Dracula living in a 70′s split-level? How about Queen Victoria in a sod house?

Knowing what you are talking about can make the descriptive short and unobtrusive. Unless you are in Queen Elizabeth I court it shouldn’t take paragraphs or a page to set the scene or describe a gown.

When I find that I’ve done just that, a lot of it hits the cutting room floor in edits.

So does window dressing happen as you write your first draft?

Do you write in layers, going back to add color to the script?

Is any of the background conscience thought or does it just happen/dictated by the characters themselves?

Do you use back drops and accents as a means to propel the story, or just as fill?

On Writing: Deconstructing Descriptive Passages

A. F. Stewart, author of Inside Realms, has accepted my invitation to be a guest host. Stewart is from Nova Scotia, and writes fantasy stories and poetry. Stewart tells us:

Wandering through cyberspace’s social networking, I have come across many an aspiring writer eagerly posting their work for comments and critiques.  As a result I have learned two things:  that the internet is alive with writers with notable, appealing ideas and many of these aspiring writers have problems creating a good descriptive scene.   These would-be writers either construct a simple methodical listing of the scene’s surroundings or they fill a scene with unnecessary detail punctuated with fluffy adjectives/adverbs.  Both of these ways of writing a narrative scene can render a piece of work tedious and mediocre.

The straight descriptive technique reads like an inventory list, is a quick way to lose a reader to boredom, and buries talent in uninspired prose.  Never write is an illustrative scene where you simply tick off the surroundings in an orderly fashion.

Here is an example of a list-like description:

Butch was standing on the back porch, staring at the garden.  To his right were the red rose bushes, beside the pink azalea bushes.  The two cedar trees were at the back, along the stone garden wall, and the cobblestone path ran through the middle of the garden.  To his left were the lilac bushes and the lilies.

Now that described the garden well enough, but did you care?  Did you feel like you were there with Butch, or would like to be?

Now this passage:

 Butch was standing on the back porch, in the fading light, staring at the early summer garden.  He could smell the heady scent of rose bushes wafting on the slight breeze.  He turned his head to the right, noticing how well their deep red colour mixed with the pink of the nearby azalea bushes.  Movement by the back stone wall caught his attention; he chuckled as a squirrel raced up one of the two cedar trees that grew against the wall. 

He could hear the drone of the hummingbirds and the sweet chirping of the sparrows, and spied them flitting among the lilies and white lilac bushes that bloomed in the left side of the garden.  There were chickadees feeding on the winding cobblestone path; Jessica had most likely thrown them some seeds earlier.

It is far more expressive, isn’t it?

A good descriptive scene invokes the visual, but also other sensory input such as sounds, smells, tactile feel, even a character’s memories.  The best writing tries to recreate how a real person would experience the event. 

Now cramming every tiny detail into scenes doesn’t work either, because you veer into the comical and absurd.  It screams amateur to readers, as does using unusual adjectives/adverbs to illustrate and emphasize.

I shall demonstrate:

Jessica was sitting harshly, rigidly, upright at her very murky, black, baby grand piano that her most beloved grandmother had happily given her for her sixteenth birthday four years ago; the very antique piano that had once belonged to her grandmother.  She had been staring exceptionally hard for more than fifteen minutes at the vaguely spider-webbed cracked, ebony-black, ivory keys that just lay there like a stiff, solid, bit of off-white fishbone that had the last of the flesh scraped off it.  She could not focus her scattered thoughts on the sheets of music that were laid out most carefully in front of her on the shiny, shadow black music rack that was attached to the piano.  She was certainly supposed to be practicing Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude , a piece of music she thoroughly treasured and often played, but her thoughts and feelings would not depart the memory of Butch leaving her this morning to sail far away across the deep ocean to Cornwall, England.  His face still bounced in her memory; his thick, shiny, exuberant, wood-brown hair, his sparkling, sassy, intelligent emerald green eyes, his sculptured, firm, Roman nose, his warm, full, soft, exquisite mouth.

Now that was a passage just brimming over with description, and confusion. 

Here’s something showing less is more:

Jessica was sitting stiffly at her baby grand piano, the antique her grandmother had given her for her sixteenth birthday.   She stared yet again at the slightly cracked keys, knowing that she could not focus her thoughts on her music.  She was supposed to be practicing Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, but her thoughts kept wandering to the memory of Butch’s leave-taking this morning.  His face still haunted her memory; his thick, brown hair, his sparkling, green eyes, and his warm, exquisite mouth.  Now he was sailing from her, to Cornwall, England. 

A writer must be careful about use of details, too many spoil the mix.   Also beware the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, and make certain you match the adjective/adverb with the mood of your narrative passage.

Remember to keep it simple, evocative and never tell your reader everything at once.  Feed your reader details like crumbs, making a trail through your story. 

When creating a scene or description, you are trying for atmosphere, to make a reader feel they are within your words.  A writer has to set the scene, and strike a balance between doling out the details and going overboard with the wordage.

For more information, see Stewart’s Squidoo lens: How to Write a Fantasy Novel.

On Writing: Accomplish Your Scene Goal and Get Out

I’ve been on a hiatus from my apocalyptic novel, but now that I’m back, I have no more idea of how to write my current scene than I did a month ago when I abandoned Chip, my hero. After Chip hiked through his changed neighborhood, encountering one horror after another, he rescued a pit-bull from a raging river. He met the dog’s owner, talked to him for a few minutes. And that’s where I left him.

I’d been looking forward to that particular scene, thinking it would be easy to write because I would have two characters to work with. I worried about Chip spending too much time alone, but some of those solitary scenes turned out quite well. The changing environment, a defunct plumbing system, and a few of out-of-place and out-of-time creatures gave Chip plenty of conflict. Maybe too much conflict. By comparison, the scene with his mentor (the dog’s owner) is flat. It was supposed to be a high point, but it’s going nowhere.

In the mythic journey scenario, mentors help prepare the hero to face the unknown. They give the hero gifts, which the hero must earn. (Chip earned his gift by rescuing the mentor’s dog.) Mentors act as a conscience for the hero, though sometimes the hero rebels against the nagging conscience. Mentors motivate. And they plant information that will become important during the climactic moment. You’d think, with all that to work with, the scene would just burst out, fully formed. But it’s not happening, which is why I’m sitting here at the computer blogging instead of writing.

Maybe I need to think of something else to give the scene spice. Maybe Chip doesn’t like the mentor, or maybe he doesn’t like the advice the mentor gives him. And maybe I need to rethink the dialogue.

Despite all the writing books that say you need short bits of dialogue, if there’s nothing to be gained by all that back and forthing, it’s better to string one character’s dialogue into a longer speech rather than have the conversation come out sounding like an interview. And if there’s no way to make a scene more interesting, it should be cut to its essentials. Accomplish the scene goal, and get out. In this case, there’s no reason to prolong the meeting with the mentor since Chip will never see him again.

And maybe I should stop over thinking the scene and just write something, anything, to get me back in the habit of writing. If it doesn’t work, I can always fix it during the rewrite.

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