Scene Craft 2: How to Create Smooth Scene Transitions

Sat Aug 04 2018

Last week, in part 1 of this scene craft series, we examined the essential qualities that define a scene, because it's hard to write a good scene if you're not clear on what a scene actually is.

This week, part two examines the mechanics of scene transitions--how scenes connect together--drawn largely from my experience with clients' manuscripts. We'll look at when to break scenes, how to open a new scene, and how to close a scene.

When to have a scene break

To begin with, let's look at when to put in a scene break. I think most writers develop an intuitive sense for that. We're writing along, we reach what feels like the end of a major thought in the story, and we put in a break.

But I've definitely encountered manuscripts where there wasn't any scene breaking, or where the breaks were somewhat haphazard. If you're ever unsure when and whether to end a scene and start a new one, pay attention to these three main triggers.

First, when the deal is done. If a scene is a deal, as we talked about in part 1, then the scene is done when the negotiations of the deal are concluded. Dragging your scene on past that point tends to feel anticlimactic and kills your pacing. End the scene and jump ahead to the next deal.

Second, when readers can readily predict what will happen next. This follows from the first reason. When the deal is done, the status quo has been changed, but usually in a way that lets readers predict what is likely to happen next.

As a trivial example, imagine that one scene's negotiations conclude with a character saying "I guess we'd better buy some supplies before we head out into the woods." Readers can predict that the next thing the characters will do is buy supplies. If that is in fact what happens, then you don't need to show it. Readers will assume it. Just skip ahead to the woods, which is what readers really want to see next anyway.

Third, when a major change in participant structure (which characters are there), action, or overall focus takes place. Sometimes you'll have a sequence of actions which are continuous in time (thus making you think they constitute one long scene) but which includes a dramatic revelation, the sudden appearance or removal of an important character, or when the characters' focus abruptly shifts to something else (a new goal or new threat). Those are also good moments to toss in a scene break, even though you're not going to skip any time or change settings before the next scene.

There's a great example of this towards the end of the first Harry Potter book, when Harry reaches his goal only to encounter an unexpected person (i.e. major change in participant structure), triggering an abrupt shift in Harry's focus (towards a new goal or threat.) J.K. Rowling wisely chooses that exact moment to end chapter 16, and does so in a way that uses a small mystery to create a cliffhanger.

Major shifts are good places for scene breaks, if for no other reason than creating cliffhangers. But more deeply, these shifts usually indicate that the story is also launching into a new deal for the characters have to negotiate. New deal = new scene.

You'll find many other random and less-common reasons to break scenes, but in my view these three are the most important.

Scene openings

A scene opening's main job is to establish the place and time in which the scene occurs, and who's there.

Movies do this with an establishing shot, which allows viewers to see those things at a glance. Your scene's opening lines are your establishing shot. Your job is to convey those new parameters as quickly as possible. Often, just one sentence or even a well-selected phrase is enough.

Although we just talked about scene breaks that don't skip time or change location, most scene breaks do. Most of the time the scene break jumps past stuff readers would assume anyway, and therefore ends up skipping over some amount of time and/or changing to a new location.

Consequently, when the new scene starts, its immediate job is orient readers to its time and place. For time, that usually means indicating how much time was skipped:

Two hours later, Addie reached the turnout on the side of the road deep within the woods.

You can also do it by indicating what time it is now for the characters:

Late that evening, with the sun below the tops of the trees, Addie reached the turnout on the side of the road.

If the scene break also changed location, then the opening should do whatever work is necessary to establish the new location. Notice how the above examples do that with phrases like "deep within the woods" and "sun below the tops of the trees."

Those are very short establishing shots for a scene, but they do the job. You don't need more than that. Sometimes I'll see writers front-load their scenes with tons of description and exposition about the location, running into a couple hundred words, when really readers are just eager to see what the characters do and what happens. Don't overload your establishing shots. Save all the extra information to sprinkle throughout the scene in small bits.

What can you leave out?

Note that scene openings can (and generally should) leave out anything readers can reasonably assume. In the extreme case, you can omit the establishing shot entirely, if the new scene follows immediately from the last with no change in time, location, or participant structure. In that case, readers can reasonably assume everything they need, so why waste their time with a redundant scene opening?

I can't give you a specific list of what "reasonably assume" includes in all cases, since it's highly dependent on the specifics of the old scene and the new one, as well as what readers already know.

For example, if your new scene involves the characters arriving at the woods, then whether you need to convey the participant structure depends on what the expectations were at the end of the last scene. If all the characters were in agreement about going to the woods, then you can just leave that out as the above examples did. Likewise, if one character had said "You guys do what you want, but I'm staying here," then you probably don't need to confirm that person's absence.

But if it was ambiguous--if one character wasn't sure, and you ended the scene with that uncertainty as your small mystery to hook readers into the new scene--then you should include something to resolve the mystery:

Naraen unfolded himself from the cramped back seat of Addie's coupe. He looked up to the dark tops of the trees high above them. "I don't know, guys," he said. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

And now readers know that Naraen came along after all, despite his better judgment. Conversely, if Naraen had elected to stay behind, you might confirm that by letting another character trash-talk him for being a coward.

Small versus large jumps

Most scene transitions do involve a jump of some kind. The question is, how big?

We've been discussing jumps that are small, relative to the amount of time the whole story spans. For those, conveying the jump in the scene opening is your best choice.

But larger jumps of months or years, especially if accompanied by a jump to a new location, call for something a bit more explicit. You can't risk readers thinking that your break was the usual small kind, and then becoming confused when suddenly nothing matches up to the previous scene.

For large jumps, I recommend using a chapter break (or even a "Part II" type of break), and putting a direct time and place reference as a subhead underneath the chapter heading:


London, three years later

Addie looked up from his usual spot in a dim back corner of the Nag's Head, caught Rosie's eye, and held up his empty glass.

"You ought to go home, Ad," Rosie said. "Bless you for a good tipper, but you'll grow moss sitting here swilling Guinness every day."

Addie rubbed at the back of his hand, at the place where a sliver of wood still left a hard bump under the scar. He handed her the glass. "Just bring me another."

Scene endings and transitions

I find scene endings to be generally easier to manage than openings, mostly because the ending conditions for a scene are so much more clear-cut.

Namely, as I mentioned earlier, you end the scene when the deal is done. That's the main reason. And once the deal is done, you don't have to do much else to wrap up the scene.

You can, if you like, give some indication of where the next scene will pick up. Just a small hint to prime the reader's mind for the scene opening they will encounter immediately afterwards. For example, that earlier line of "I guess we'd better buy some supplies before we head out into the woods" clues readers in to the fact that the woods are probably going to be next.

This kind of lead-out is, however, optional. It's much more ok, usually, to just chop a scene at its ending without any lead-out, then it would be to open a scene with no establishing shot.

Another good way to end a scene is on some kind of high-point or hook.

An easy (if somewhat obvious) way to do that is to chop the scene just before the end of the deal, leaving the reader hanging on what the deal's outcome is going to be. That sort of thing works well in thriller novels (indeed, Dan Brown has made a fortune off of that technique).

But, ending on anything that leaves a question in the reader's mind will do. Chopping before the end of the deal leaves readers with the same question they've had throughout the whole scene. I find that using the scene's lead-out as a means of raising a new question yields a better reading experience.

Smooth transitions matter

Stories are made of scenes, so it pays to make sure the transitions between them are smooth. It's easy, so long as you pay attention to breaking your scenes at the right place, ending one scene on a compelling hook, and establishing the next scene quickly.

Of course, I still haven't said a word about how you actually write a scene. How you take your plot ideas and turn them into words on the page. The magic there is not so much in how you write, but how you think. Stay tuned next week when we delve into the dual mental processes writers engage in when actually writing scenes.

In the meantime, look through some novels you consider to be well-written and examine how those authors handle their establishing shots and lead-outs. See what other clever scene transitioning tricks you can pick up.

If you found this article first, check out part 1 on the essentials of scenes, or skip ahead to part 3 on how to accomplish the actual writing of a scene, turning your ideas into words on the page.