How to Move From One Scene to the Next

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Terry’s helpful post on transitions got me thinking (always a dangerous thing). So today I’d like to add a few nuggets of my own.

Simply put, transitions are what take you from one scene or POV to another, or ahead in time within the same scene. Here’s an example of a location transition:

     John stormed out of the apartment. If the big man wanted a showdown, he was going to get it.
     Putting pedal to the metal, John tore across town, ignoring stop signs and pedestrians and at least one cop.
     Entering the office, John heard the receptionist say, “Good morning.”
     “Whatever,” John said.

We have moved from John’s apartment to his office—change of location.

Now an example of time transition:

     “You want to know why you’re being let go?” Stevenson said.
     “Yeah,” John said. “Fill me in.”
     “Sit down, and cool off. I’ve got some things to tell you.”
John plopped in a chair.
     “I want to tell you about my dad, and how he started this firm,” Stevenson said. “I need to start when I was a kid.”
     Half an hour later, John was ready to jump out the window. Stevenson hadn’t stopped talking the whole time.

We don’t get the entire Stevenson speech. Unless it’s crucial to the plot, we don’t need it. Time transitions are easy. Just add one line to let us know we’ve moved ahead within the same scene.

Now let’s look a little more closely at location transitions. I’m not talking about chapter breaks here, but moving to another setting within a chapter. When you do change locations, you can stay with the same viewpoint character, or shift to another POV. But you have to let the reader know what’s going on in the most efficient way possible.

There are three techniques:

  1. Narrative Summary

As the term suggests, you can get from one location to the next by summarizing the transitional stuff (rather than showing each beat). Unless plot or character material is necessary, just get us to the new location with as little muss as possible. This is the narrative summary from in the first example in this post, above:

Putting pedal to the metal, John tore across town, ignoring stop signs and pedestrians and at least one cop.

We aren’t shown the drive. That would involve description, action, perhaps John’s internal thoughts as he drove. But if none of that has any value to the story, don’t put it in. Use narrative summary to get us to the new scene toot sweet.

The pulp writers were especially adept at this. Here’s how Talmage Powell (1920-2000) did it in his Black Mask story “Her Dagger Before Me.”

     “All right,” I said. “I’ll do what I can to help you. This is murder. Contrary to what the public thinks, private dicks don’t like to get mixed in murder. If we have to wade through murder the cost is high.”
     “I know,” Phyllis Darnell said. “I’ll pay.”
     “I’m not worrying. After all, I’ll have the letters, won’t I?”
     I ushered her out, showered, and went over to Mac’s garage, where my coupe had been laid up with a ring job.

  1. White Space

Another way to move is by putting in a space break, like this:

     John stormed out of the apartment. If the big man wanted a showdown, he was going to get it.

 

    Entering the office, John heard the the receptionist say, “Good morning.”
    “Whatever,” John said.

White space is also how you switch between POV characters within the same chapter. Just be sure to identify the new viewpoint character in the first line:

     John stormed out of the apartment. If the big man wanted a showdown, he was going to get it.

 

    Gil Stevenson stuck his head out his office door. “Has Stone come in yet?”
    “No, Mr. Stevenson,” Peggy said.
    “Well, get him in here the moment he arrives!” He slammed the door and took a deep breath. This was not going to be one of his better days.

  1. Just Be There

Last week I wrote about the Bill Lennox stories by W. T. Ballard. For fun I re-read the first one, “A Little Different,” published in Black Mask in 1933. In one scene Lennox is in a cab being followed by a dirty PI. He gives the cabbie a fin ($5) to lose him.

     The driver grinned and turned sharply onto Vine, right on Sunset, left at Highland, crashing a signal. Finally, at the corner of Arlington and Pico, he pulled to the curb. “Where to?”
     Lennox said, “Take me to Melrose and Van Ness.” The driver shrugged and turned towards Western.
     Lennox got out at the corner and walked to the apartment house.

What happened between the driver turning towards Western and Lennox getting out? Driving, maybe some talk, arriving, pulling to the curb, etc. We don’t need any of that. Here’s a little secret: the reader fills in that stuff subconsciously and thus the pace doesn’t slow one bit.

And speaking of pace, how you handle transitions is a major way to control it.

The above examples keep the pace crisp. But suppose you want to slow things down a bit, give the reader a breather, and stick in some deepening of character? Just use the transition to add internal thoughts or, if you’re brave enough, a flashback.

Internal thoughts

     Putting pedal to the metal, John tore down the street. He saw a cop ahead and slowed. One thing he didn’t need was a ticket. One thing he did need was a drink. Maybe a quick stop at Barney’s would help. Sure. A little liquid courage never hurt.
     Of course it hurts, you dope. You know how you get. Two shots of Bushmills and you’re ready to give Mike Tyson his comeback bout.

Flashback

     Putting pedal to the metal, John tore down the street. He saw a cop ahead and slowed. One thing he didn’t need was a ticket. He stopped at the red light like an A+ driving student.
     Which he’d once been, in high school. That was before the accident. He and Tom Barker were out one night, John driving his dad’s Porsche. Tom wanted In-N-Out. John wanted Boone’s Farm Apple Wine.
     “We’ll get some guy to buy it for us,” John said. “Then we’ll go stuff your face.”

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) the skillful handling of transitions, and using variety in the technique, is a way to subtly enhance the fictive dream for the reader. And dreamers buy books.

Now let us transition into comments.

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Tomorrow is release day for Romeo’s Stand, the fifth Mike Romeo thriller (the books can be read in any order). See the listing here!

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37 thoughts on “How to Move From One Scene to the Next

  1. Thanks for this, Jim. I’m definitely bookmarking it. And good luck with Romeo’s Stand. Nice cover.

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  2. I like narrative summary and white space transitions, and probably use white space transitions most often. I found the ‘just be there’ example a bit confusing. When I read:

    Lennox said, “Take me to Melrose and Van Ness.” The driver shrugged and turned towards Western.
    Lennox got out at the corner and walked to the apartment house.

    It read to me like Lennox got out of the car while it was moving. which briefly threw me out of the reading rhythm. I think in that case I just would’ve started a new scene with some white space. But it’s nice to know the writer has plenty of options!

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    • Interesting, BK. My “fill-in subconscious” didn’t ever entertained that notion. But yes, you have the option, and there are innumerable ways to do it that won’t cause the “bump” you describe. That’s what’s so great about the craft!

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  3. Excellent, as always. (I was following the character through the drive in LA on my mental map.)
    I’ve been checking location transitions in the current WIP. My characters are on a tour of the British Isles. Lots of stops at venues, new hotels every day or two. They get on the van, off the van, into the hotel, into their rooms, to and from sightseeing venues.
    Unless there’s an important plot point, it’s easy enough to say “Once in her room”, or (as you pointed out), an hour later, they arrived at XX. I do like to leave time cues in there, both for me and the reader, or I fall into the three lunch day trap.
    One caveat about white space for transitions, especially for indie published e-books. Some conversion software will assume it’s a mistake and delete them. Make sure you check first. Or, play it safe and use a smaller version of your chapter break symbol.

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    • Good, practical point about formatting, Terry. Yes, always check and double check. I should have mentioned that some writers put an “ornament” of some kind in the break—a dot, a line, three asterisks, etc.

      My formatting program, Vellum, offers nice choices for the first line after a break. You can put in a drop cap or small all-caps to set it off.

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  4. Thanks for the post. Great discussion of options for transitions.

    And transitioning in time, one week ago to be exact, I asked a question about voice and style. Since then I found your chapters in Writer’s Digest’s, WRITING VOICE. Chapter 12, Voice and Style was particularly helpful. And in your book, VOICE,THE SECRET POWER OF GREAT WRITING, I really enjoyed the chapter, Learning to Vary Voice. The examples of Robert E. Howard’s many different styles and voice, according to genre, were impressive.

    (No transition, just white space) I look forward to reading ROMEO’S STAND.

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  5. Both Terry’s post and this one expand our options. Thanks.

    BTW, as a French teacher, I got a good chuckle out of toot sweet!

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    • My wife took French in HS, Nancy, and she had the same question about toot sweet. As far as I am able to determine, it is acceptable slang. From Grammarist.com:

      The term toot sweet arose during the First World War, when American soldiers were sent overseas to mingle with foreign allies for the first time. Toot sweet is a mangled version of the French phrase, tout de suite, which means immediately or right away. Few American soldiers could speak French but it was only natural that key phrases would be learned, considering the close proximity to an army speaking a foreign language. The Americans brought the term home with them in the slang form, toot sweet.

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  6. Excellent, Jim. I use three asterisks to signal a white space break in the MS, but some publishers, as you know, request three hashmarks. I guess it depends on their formatting program. Of which, I know very little about (and I like it that way!). 🙂

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    • I always associate the three hashtags with the end of a story or press release. That’s the traditional use. But as long as it’s consistent throughout, I don’t see a problem.

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    • I’m a three asterisks fan, myself. I don’t recommend white space by itself in a manuscript. I’ve seen the white space disappear on more than one manuscript in the trading back and forth between me and the editor, and one disaster where it absolutely disappeared along with a bunch of text when the manuscript was moved to the printer. PRO TIP: Insist on both ebook and paper copies of your book before it goes live. Then read through both.

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  7. Jim, as always, your advice is clear, helpful, and easy to incorporate into our own work. That’s why you’re the Master Professor!

    One other detail about scene break formatting: in addition to three asterisks (or whatever symbol is used) to indicate the change, the first paragraph of the new scene is not indented. Same with the first paragraph of a new chapter.

    Best of luck with the new Romeo!

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  8. Hi Jim,

    This is a very helpful rundown of how to manage and leverage transitions. I tend to lean on narrative summary, and am glad you mentioned white space–it’s a great reminder. Such a powerful way to manage the narrative through a simple line break.

    I’m a huge Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, and one thing that inevitably draws the riffs from the jump-suited human and the two robots is when a film shows a character driving from point A to point B with no narrative purpose. The plot of those sorts of terrible films is typically already moving at a turgid pace, showing people driving ironically only brings it to a screeching halt.

    I remind myself that if you’re going to show someone driving or walking etc somewhere, then there needs to be narrative and/or emotional movement as well, otherwise you can summarize, jump cut via white space or “just get there.”

    As always, thank you for another informative and fun post!

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    • Mystery Grand Master Phyllis A. Whitney once wrote that you shouldn’t have a character folding laundry and thinking unless the reader knows the bad guy is behind her with an axe.

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      • LOL, Marilynn. My first draft of my first attempt at a novel opened with the heroine folding laundry and thinking. Drawn out of my own life experience, of course.

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  9. Thanks, JSB…another excellent post copied and pasted into my “Teach Me!” file.

    I was going to mention off-topic: I’m going through your “Inside Secrets of Best-Selling Fiction” course, and I was so excited, nay, thrilled when I did the simple math on my current WIP and found my mirror moment was almost perfectly mid-point in the MS. I celebrated with honey and half-and-half in my coffee. 🙂

    That’s one…

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      • Which brings me to another question about that mirror moment: it’s now right where it should be in my MS.

        However, I’m still layering in additional scenes. What do I need to do if the MM ends up too far one way or the other, i.e., gets moved from the midpoint because I’ve added (or deleted) scenes? Is there a trick up the author’s sleeve to manage that problem?

        Thanks.

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  10. Thank you, JSB, for another great lesson.

    Like Deb, I’m going through your “Inside Secrets of Best-Selling Fiction” course, and I like the video-lesson-handout way you organized it. (The changes in venue in each video are fun.) I particularly enjoyed the dialogue example from “City Slickers.” It’s one of my favorite moves, and it has so many great lines — I was laughing out loud reading “a saddlebag with eyes.”

    Congratulations on the fifth Romeo book. My ipad is awake, alert, and waiting for the download!

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      • Kay, don’t you love reading the titles of the books behind him? It seems like they’re different with each lecture.

        “Creative Whack Pack”?
        “Gun Crazy”?
        “Milton Berle’s Joke File”-bet that’s entertaining!

        🙂

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        • I noticed “Gun Crazy” but missed the other two. I bow to your superior powers of observation!

          But did you notice the book cover with the photo on the shelf changes with each video? JSB, it’s only fair that you tell us who they are. (Apologies if I should know.)

          Also, there’s an image in the lower right side of the screen that looks like the inside of a typewriter, but it says “Underworld” instead of “Underwood.” Hmmm. I think he’s telling us something.

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          • It’s been awhile so I don’t remember which author photos. I’m sure Evan Hunter / Ed McBain was one of them. He’s looking at me now.

            The Underwood typewriter reproduction was the skin on my old laptop. Only it had to say Underworld for trademark reasons.

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  11. The most difficult transitions I’ve ever dealt with in a novel had both the simple now we’re with Daniel in the restaurant with the probable bad guy, now we’re at Daniel’s mansion with Tony and Penn, but I also had to indicate that all of this was happening at the same time within the scene like a split screen in a movie by giving clues. Tony and Penn figure out that the bad guy is the bad guy, and he wants to kill Daniel. They call the restaurant to warn Daniel. (Pre cell phone) Daniel and the bad guy have left already and are heading to a prime kill-Daniel location. Goons enter the mansion to steal the MacGuffin, and there’s a deadly hide and seek in its secret passages. (I LOVE a good goon!) Daniel escapes and realizes Tony and Penn are in danger. He arrives in time to see the head goon stab Tony. Mayhem ensues, and the goons get what they deserve. A very tricky narrative dance, but it worked.

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  12. Thank you for another informative post. This is a great topic for me because I am plotting a story of suspense where the location will play a role. I want my heroine to spend a month in a remote cottage that will have an effect on her psyche. She needs to be there a while. I have never tried to write a thriller that spanned more than 8 days because the passing of time has always posed a challenge for me. I am grateful if you have any advice about how to skip ahead in time to the next scene and show she is changing without being aware. It is a big topic I know :)Thank you, Margaret

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    • I’m not sure I understand your question, Margaret. It sounds like you may mean the character herself is unaware of the passage of time, in which case she’s got some sort of mental issue, which you can handle by giving us a surprise down the line or having her confused about why the flowers are now blooming or some such. But I don’t see a problem with moving ahead 8 days or 8 months.

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