by Terry Odell

On last Friday’s question, one person commented on transitions being hardest for her to write, so I thought I’d address my approach to the subject here.

TransitionsWhen we moved to Colorado, we did a lot of remodeling. We have a small tile area in front of the fireplace. We installed ¾ inch hardwood for the rest of the floor. One of the challenges the contractors faced was making sure the transition between tile and wood was smooth, because the new hardwood was thicker than the pre-existing laminate flooring.

In your manuscript, you have to decide how you’re going to get from one time or place to the next. You don’t want people tripping when they move from tile to wood. That’s why paying attention to transitions is important.

There are ‘big’ transitions: Switching POV characters, chapter breaks, and scene breaks. There are the ‘little ones: Making sure every sentence, every paragraph follows logically from the one preceding it. As you can see, it’s a broad topic, but I’ll try to hit some of the high points.

When I started writing, I felt obligated to be with my characters 24/7. It was a major writing breakthrough to be able to write, “By Friday” when the previous scene was on a Wednesday. Skip two days? Gasp! Things had to be happening. And they were, but they weren’t anything that moved the story. There are other ways to show passage of time. Some authors like to date/time stamp scenes and chapters. There are scene breaks. Or, just some extra white space.

Formatting note: if you’re indie publishing, some of the conversion software (for ebooks) assumes extra returns are mistakes, and removes them. Print is another matter. For ebooks, I take the cautious approach and use a marker. If it’s a break within a scene, and my normal scene breaks are ~~~, then I’ll use a single ~ to show I’m with the same POV character, same scene, but time or place has changed.

For new chapters and scenes, I want to make sure I’m grounding the reader in the who, where, and when. For my romantic suspense books, each chapter usually has 2 main scenes, one from each character’s POV. That requires a bit of leapfrog mentality from the reader.

The last sentence of a scene often won’t lead into the first of the next. There has to be a way to remind the reader of: first, whose scene this will be, and second, where the previous scene ended. And, if time has passed, there has to be a way to indicate that as well. When you shift scenes or chapters, look at your opening paragraph. Is it description? Yes, you want to show the reader they’re somewhere else, but it can be more important to show the reader who they’re with first. Keep them involved with the character; don’t slow the read to describe the sunrise.

An example: Protag Graham has a POV scene in Chapter One. We’ve learned he’s a patrol cop with a goal of a transfer into a detective position. He’s in competition with another cop, Clarke. That scene ends with the following, which was clearly in Graham’s POV. He’s been thinking of the woman he just met in his investigation.

Laughter erupted from the room. The sound of his name, coupled with Clarke’s guffaws, eradicated Colleen’s image like wind-blown storm clouds. Dammit. It had been five years. He was a damn good cop, and he was going to beat Clarke into CID no matter how many times the arrogant bastard tried to dredge up his past.

He appears again in Chapter Two, but not as a POV character. His next turn center stage is in Chapter Four. Here’s the opening:

Graham finished filing his reports, surprised to see it was four-thirty. Instead of going home, he drove to Central Ops. Roger Schaeffer in CID might let him poke around a little. The lieutenant seemed to be one of the few who thought Graham had a shot at the CID spot. His recommendation could make the difference.

For this scene, I opened by using Graham’s name (who), and also a time reference (when). The where, Central Ops is mentioned. Also, by showing something only Graham can be aware of (his surprise at the time), we’ve established it’s his POV scene. If there was any doubt, the rest of the paragraph is internal monologue, thoughts only Graham would know.

Another good reason for clear transitions between chapters and scenes is because those tend to be the logical stopping places for readers. If they’re not picking up the book until the next night—or later, but we hate to think they could possibly wait that long to continue reading—it helps if they don’t feel that they have to back up to get a running start.

You also have to consider the ‘mini-transitions.’

Whether you’re writing narrative or dialogue, there has to be a clear and steady flow from one sentence to the next, from one paragraph to the next. Just as you need transitions between scenes, you need transitions between individual paragraphs. And sentences. Consider dialogue. Normally, in conversation, if someone asks a question, we’ll answer it. Whatever the person who asked the question happens to be doing or thinking is going on simultaneously with our hearing the question and giving our response.

But in writing, if you stick all those internal thoughts and gestures in, it’s likely your reader will have forgotten the question. Look out for tacking on sentences after a character has asked a question. That’s not the best place to include it.

How do you handle transitions? Tips or problems you’re looking for help with? I’m sure there are a lot of folks here willing to chime in.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

18 thoughts on “Transitions

  1. Good info, Terry.

    A pet peeve is reading a new scene or chapter that starts with dialog floating in a vacuum. The reader has no idea where or when it’s taking place, let alone who’s talking. Newer writers often think this is a way to build suspense. Just irritates me.

    How about a post on transitions into and out of flashbacks? Going into a flashback is fairly simple, e.g. “Seeing her old home triggered the painful memory of when she was sixteen and blah, blah, blah…”

    But I find it hard to get out of the flashback into the real time of the story. Any tips?

    • What I picked up at a conference was to use “now” to let the reader know you’ve moved into the present. “Now, she wondered how she’d survived …”
      Something like that.

    • This is pet teaching of mine, Debbie. Pick a strong sensory image to get into the flashback: Delia watched the spider crawling down the wall. Slow and steady and ugly. Just like John when he coaxed her into his car her senior year.

      Then do the flashback scene. To get out, merely return to the sensory image. The spider was almost to the floor now. Delia wiped away a tear. Slow and steady? No longer. She would charge right into the office tomorrow and tell Madison what he could do with his promotion.

    • Flashbacks, the ones where you go to another time/scene, are the biggest disaster-waiting-to-happen for newer writers of popular genre. Transitions and the mental gymnastics of the reader trying to make sense of what the heck is going on are story-immersion death even when well-written. I am not a fan, and I don’t recall ever using one in thirty years of professional writing. I much prefer tossing in narrative info tidbits for backstory and using dialog for current flashbacks. (Full flashbacks are perfectly okay for literary and mainstream fiction where plot and linear time aren’t of primary importance.)

  2. Good tips, Terry. I prefer to write in scenes (cinematically) and thus my Mike Romeo books have no chapters. Just white space between scenes. I format with the Mac app, Vellum. This allows me to set a style for the first line of each new scene. I use a drop cap, but I could also have the first three words be in caps. That way, I don’t need a mark between the scenes.

    These books are in First Person, so there’s no POV confusion. But you could do the same formatting for Third Person so long as you put the new POV character’s name in the first or second line, as you suggest.

    • Good suggestion, JSB. Any clue to the reader that “something’s changed here” is good. My pet peeve is authors who write multiple 1st person POV, and the only clue as to whose head I’m in is the chapter heading which says “Bob”, and then everything is “I”.
      After I’ve turned a page, or had to put the book down, I’m clueless as to whose POV I’m in. There’s no good way to find out other than finding the 1st page of that chapter as a reminder.

  3. Great job of explaining a difficult concept for some writers. I’m in the middle of edits for the next book in my series and there are a couple of places where my transition was not as smooth as it should have been so this will help.

    Your hearth is beautiful! I ran into your problem when I had my kitchen remodeled. The tile was a good half-inch taller than the floor–a perfect place for me to stump my toe and end up on the floor. It took two different contractors to get it right. lol

    • Thanks, Patricia – physical transitions can be more painful than literary ones! At least our contractors cared about getting it done right. And hope my suggestions (and JSB’s) help.

  4. Thanks, Terry! Transitions are difficult for me.

    I’m glad you brought up transitions in and out of flashbacks, Debbie. In my current WIP, two marine vets trade off emotional jabs grounded in their PTSD experiences. In one scene, Tom has a flashback while talking to the other vet, Bill. The flashback involves the death of his best friend in Vietnam. Tom’s holding him as he dies. After trying to save him, the corpsman says to Tom, “Sorry, sir.” Tom replies, “It’s not your fault.” But he says it out loud.

    That last line leads into his return from the flashback, because while he was seeing his buddy die, Bill was talking about his own best friend dying in Iraq. Bill had always blamed himself, because if he’d let his friend drive the convoy truck (they’d argued about it), he would have died instead of his friend.

    When Tom says, out loud, “It’s not your fault” to the corpsman, Bill explodes. You see, he didn’t know that Tom was flashing all the time he was talking. Bill yells, “Of course it was my fault. Weren’t you listening?” That snaps Tom out of his flash and brings him back.

    Sorry about how long it took to describe this, but I really like how that transition worked. It sure was hard to wrangle it out of my head onto the keyboard, though!

    • Getting something to work is a great feeling, isn’t it. Another “easy” fix getting out of flashbacks can be something as simple as a sound, or someone talking “snapping ‘character’ to the present.’ Not as creative as JSB’s spider, but it can get the job done for the first pass.

  5. Many thanks for this post. It is one of the areas that I am struggling with in my manuscript.

    • Thanks, Nancy. Nobody ever said this gig was easy! We all have areas that come easy, areas that are like climbing Pikes Peak.

  6. I’m fond of anti-transitions. Why ease the readers into the new scene when you can slap them in the face? While they’re reeling from the blow, they tumble naturally into the new scene. So I like to end chapters with a twist like, “I wasn’t expecting any zombies. Were you?” With a question like that hanging in the air, the next chapter will start right on the heels of the last one.

    I also like to start them with a twist. “I knew he’d gone insane when the very next thing he did was pick up the phone and order five pizzas.”

    So I’ll insert chapter breaks based on punchlines and shifts of tone, not just discontinuities in time and space.

    When there is a discontinuity, I establish time and location in the first paragraph. POV takes care of itself since I have a single first-person viewpoint character.

    Flashbacks? I’d do it differently in third-person, but my current works are essentially first-person yarns where the viewpoint character is aware of the act of storytelling and of her putative audience. There’s not a lot of difference between a flashback, a digression, and exposition when you have a certain kind of first-person narrator, and so far my flashbacks have been woven into scenes rather than set apart from them.

    • As long as your readers are grounded in the who, when, and where, the technique is always the author’s call. Looks like you’ve established your technique.

  7. “Meanwhile back at the ranch.” The most famous transition ever.

    Transitions are hard for newer writers, then they aren’t unless an experienced writer is just being annoying. One bestselling author I stopped reading, (cough, Kay Hooper, cough) has decided that her novels with their huge viewpoint cast of regulars would be a great place to start scenes with “he” or “she” to add suspense. And I’m not talking about a bad guy viewpoint to hide the identity from the reader. It’s her fudging FBI agents. That’s not a reader stop sign, that’s a barrier the size of the Great Wall of China. And her NY conglomerate editors let her do this? Okay, rant over. Don’t be that kind of writer, kids.

    A transition not mentioned here, mainly because this info is for newer writers, is the in-scene viewpoint change with no indicator beyond the language. Most readers have no problem with it if it’s done correctly, but it’s a killer for writers who aren’t at the top of their craft game.

    I won’t go in to detail here, but, if anyone is interested in an example and explanation, go here:

    • Thanks for the links, Marilynn. Suzanne Brockmann, who is a huge Deep POV advocate, also shows ways to transition from one POV character to the other without breaks by slowly drawing back into a shallower POV, then shifting, using the new POV character’s name and an action/thought that clinches the shift.

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