Scene transitions are often the most dangerous time in your story because it is an opportunity for the reader to put down the story and do something else.
Whether you’re transitioning between time (moving forward or backward), between scenes (the start of a new scene or location), or between characters (flipping viewpoints), there’s one goal you want to have: Make it as smooth and unnoticeable as possible.
But you probably already know this, right?
So I want to take this a step further and show you one author who’s mastered the creative transition. By "creative" I mean not used generic scene transitions (Later that night, Outside, blah-bitty-blah).
A quick note about transitions in general: Timing of a transition is key. Writers have three distinct time frames to alert the reader of a change: before the change occurs, during the change, and after the change. At the beginning of a new section or chapter, the writer needs to make clear to the reader: 1.) where the viewpoint character is located, 2.) how much time has elapsed since the last section or chapter, and 3.) from whose viewpoint the section is being viewed.
You all know I like examples, so let’s look at a few from HOW TO SAVE A LIFE (Sara Zarr):
“Promise me you won’t hire this work guy, or anyone, to investigate Mandy behind your mom’s back. If you’re that worried, talk to your mom and let her decide.”
I slide the check toward me. “How much is it?”
“Jill. Say okay. Say you won’t do anything stupid.”
“Okay.” I put cash on the table. “I won’t do anything stupid.”
As if he heard all my accusations about being a relentless suit-wearer, Ravi isn’t wearing one tonight.
Now, if you were reading the story you’d already know that Ravi is the “work guy” and the simple fact that the next scene is starting out with him shows us that the new scene is taking place in the bookstore where Jill works. This is a creative approach to the common transitional method of shifting to a new location for the next scene. The author could’ve easily said something more generic like The air was stuffy in Bookends, but didn’t take the easy way out.
Let’s look at another from the same book, yet a different point of view, Mandy:
I’ve gotten used to the way Robin’s footsteps sound on the stairs—clip-clip-clip—whereas Jill’s are more clomp-clomp-clomp.
This new scene transitions from Mandy’s interior monologue rehashing some of the issues she had with her mom’s boyfriend and instead of saying As I sat on the couch in the living room, or As I looked up at the stairs, Zarr wasn’t lazy with this transition. In fact, she didn’t mention the living room or couch at all! See what I’m saying here? Don’t go with the generic, the expected.
Okay one more. This one’s a bit more “telling” than the others, but it’s still got a creative touch to it:
I’m still hanging on to the remnants of Laurel and Cinders’s reaction to the Mandy situation when I get home and find Mom in her office, working and listening to Neil Young, a cup of tea beside her keyboard. The desk lamp casts a halo of light around her. It’s a lonely scene.
There’s actually a generic transition in this one. Can you spot it?
When I get home…
But it’s disguised with a bit about her friends, which also doubles as a reminder of what happened earlier that day.
MISTAKES TO AVOID WHEN WRITING TRANSITIONS:
I read a lot of unsolicited manuscripts with the internship and have realized there are a number of ways to write transitions that attract the wrong kind of attention. One common error is to tell readers too much. For example, if one scene ends with Robert deciding to see his dad to ask for some money, the next scene should not begin: When Robert arrived at his dad's house to borrow the thousand dollars he needed to pay Steve by noon...
Write only what moves the plot forward. Some transitions are superfluous. For example, if someone plans to fly from one city to another, a transitional phrase such as They drove her to the airport and waited as she checked her suitcase is unnecessary. Unless something important happens at the airport, it’s better to make filmic cuts, jumping from one location to another with a transitional phrase, avoiding all the details between.
The possibilities for writing effective—and creative—transitions are abundant. Read extensively and develop the habit of examining how other writers transfer between scenes, and which transitional words they use. Then aim to create fresh constructions of your own.