When you think of your story, you think of the Big Scenes, right? The important plot points, the vital Moments that challenge your characters and move your book along. But what about the transition scenes, connecting all those story events together? Transitional scenes can be incredibly difficult to get right. They’re a spot in your novel that’s rife for info-dumping, and a poorly written transition scene can drag like dead weight. But sometimes cutting it off entirely can mess up your story’s pacing!
A good transition scene is seamless. You don’t notice it’s a transition, because you’re engaged in what you’re reading and the information you’re being given is naturally setting up for the next Story Event. The transition gives you something — a funny moment, a beautiful description, a thrilling bit of mystery, an enlightening character detail, a hint at the conflict or tension to come — that makes it move along smoothly.
To start things off, what is a transition scene?
A transition scene is the thread connecting disparate parts of your novel. Take some of these examples from Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince
It might be a scene of time passing, such as snow falling over the Hogwarts grounds as the seasons change:
Snow was swirling against the icy windows once more; Christmas was approaching fast. Hagrid had already single-handedly delivered the usual twelve Christmas trees for the Great Hall; garlands of holly and tinsel had been twisted around the banisters of the stairs; everlasting candles glowed from inside the helmets of suits of armor and great bunches of mistletoe had been hung at intervals along the corridors. Large groups of girls tended to converge underneath the mistletoe bunches every time Harry went past, which caused blockages in the corridors; fortunately, however, Harry’s frequent nighttime wanderings had given him an unusually good knowledge of the castle’s secret passageways, so that he was able, without too much difficulty, to navigate mistletoe-free routes between classes.
Maybe it’s a moment of traveling between locations:
The walk into Hogsmeade was not enjoyable. Harry wrapped his scarf over his lower face; the exposed part soon felt both raw and numb. The road to the village was full of students bent double against the bitter wind. More than once Harry wondered whether they might not have had a better time in the warm common room, and when they finally reached Hogsmeade and saw that Zonko’s Joke Shop had been boarded up, Harry took it as confirmation that this trip was not destined to be fun. Ron pointed, with a thickly gloved hand, toward Honeydukes, which was mercifully open, and Harry and Hermione staggered in his wake into the crowded shop.
Or, it might be the connective tissue between two scenes that serves to move us from one emotional place to the next:
Harry wracked his brains over the next week as to how he was to persuade Slughorn to hand over the true memory, but nothing in the nature of a brain wave occurred and he was reduced to doing what he did increasingly these days when at a loss: poring over his Potions book, hoping that the Prince would have scribbled something useful in a margin, as he had done so many times before.
The scene before this last example is all about Dumbledore imploring Harry to extract a memory from Slughorn; the next scene has Harry sitting in the Common Room musing over this problem — that is, until Kreacher and Dobby appear with news about another mystery: where Draco Malfoy keeps sneaking off. JKR seamlessly transitions readers from the Slughorn mystery to the Malfoy one, keeping you rooted in the story as it flows.
So, if you’re struggling with a transition in your novel, here are some things to consider:
Gauge whether the transition is worth it in the first place.
Consider your novel as though it were a movie playing in your mind’s eye. Do these two scenes need a montage between them, showing the action that came in between? Or could you get away with a quick cut that ends one scene and brings us swiftly to the next?
Every story is going to be different, and what’s best for one story might not work for another. If several months are passing between scenes, or if characters are traveling thousands of miles, a transitional few paragraphs grounding the reader in the changing settings might be beneficial for your story!
For instance, the latest season of Game of Thrones did away with the usual travel montages and instead had their characters leaving one location and showing up at another one hundreds of miles away seemingly instantly. Fans found the breakneck traveling speeds jarring and confusing. How did Jon Snow get there so quickly? And now he’s back there? How did that happen? How much time has passed?? Had they just spent a few seconds showing the characters loading onto boats or traveling the countryside on horseback, viewers would have been able to conceptualize the characters’ zigzagging across Westeros a little more comfortably.
That said, sometimes stories will work best without long winded transitions. If the transition scene isn’t working for you because it seems boring, maybe it’s just not essential to the story! If the transition doesn’t inform the story or the characters, you can save yourself a lot of stress by cutting it out entirely! As the old writing adage goes, start scenes as late as possible and leave as early as you can. Sometimes this means getting out those scissors and cutting the transition entirely.
But what if a transitional scene *is* important? How can I make sure it works well?
There are lots of reasons that a transition scene might be necessary for moving a story forward. A story’s pacing is super important, and maybe you need your story to take a breather before you launch into the next big Scene. Maybe your characters are traveling for several weeks, or maybe your story is time-jumping to five years down the road. Maybe you need to introduce a new setting, or move a character from one emotional place to another in order to set up the coming scene. Maybe you’re writing fantasy, and you need valuable time to worldbuild. And yet, every time you try to write those few paragraphs bridging the gap, you struggle to make them work. What’s going wrong? And how can you fix it?
Bring it back to character and concrete sensory details.
If a transitional scene is difficult or boring for you, it might mean you’re disengaged from it. So, make the transition work for you and your novel. Find ways to bring character into the transition. You could incorporate a glimpse of a character’s backstory, a hint at the conflict to come, or how your character feels about the transition taking place.
A paragraph about the beautiful mountain vistas your characters are hiking through is all well and good, but it’s even better to mention how your character is huffing and puffing as they clamber up the rocks, or how their shoes are falling apart and feet beginning to throb, or how their brother is no longer meeting them in the eye, furious that your protagonist’s stubbornness has gotten them lost in these mountains.
Find a way to tie your transition to your character’s internal journey, and you’ll automatically make it more engaging for your reader.
Harry Potter does a great job of treating transitional scenes as just another part of the story. Between major plot events, transitions bring life to the characters and character to the settings. Look at the examples above, and note the character details in each of them.
We don’t just hear that Hogwarts is being decorated for Christmas. We learn that the Christmas decorations — mainly, the bunches of mistletoe — are creating a problem for Harry that he has, thanks to his deep knowledge of the castle’s secret most passageways, been able to solve. This transition also sets up that very fact: That Harry knows about the most secret areas of the school. Readers needed to have that information in the backs of their minds for later, when Harry finds out Draco Malfoy is hiding in one of Hogwarts’ secret rooms.
As Harry, Ron, and Hermione walk to Hogsmeade, we don’t just hear that the wind is whipping and the journey cold. We see Harry thinking they should’ve just stayed in the Common Room, we get concrete details about the clothes he and Ron are wearing — scarves and thick gloves — and we get new worldbuilding details: the growing tensions and dangers in the Wizarding World have caused Zonko’s Joke Shop to close. In one paragraph we get insight into the character’s innermost thoughts, we get concrete sensory details about the characters and their surroundings, and we get a nice bit of worldbuilding to boot.
Ground the transitions in the context of the story. Include an emotional check-in for the character, or use the space to worldbuild and add character to the setting. Or, take a moment to ruminate about the story’s bigger arcs and mysteries. Let your transitional scenes work double-duty. They won’t feel expendable if they’re building on character or laying down groundwork for the story to come.
To close, consider the following when writing transitional moments:
1. Pay close attention to the transition’s surrounding context. Like in the third Half-Blood Prince example, the transition begins with the character ruminating about the scene that came before and then opens with a visual to set the stage for the scene that follows: Harry poring over his Potions book.
2. Use concrete sensory details to bring your transitions to life. Don’t pile on vague, cookie-cutter descriptions your readers have read a thousand times before. Bring out specific details unique to your world.
3. Bring it back to the characters. Engage your characters in your transitional paragraphs. If you have to show them traveling, show how your characters feel about their travels. If the seasons are changing, show how your character’s habits or behaviors are altered. Just like you’re finding concrete sensory details to bring your writing to life, find concrete character details that will let your transition earn its place.
You can do this.
Happy Writing. : )
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