Remember, in the days when you were writing essays for English class, and a teacher would write the word “transition” in the margin of your paper? They wanted you to smooth out the jump from one paragraph to another, to use a phrase that would make the flow of text more clean. So you’d stick in something like “After Joe got home from the zoo…” or “Once Sally dug the pickle out of the pudding…” Then you’d hand the essay back in and hope for a better grade.
When we’re writing fiction, moving our readers from scene to scene, we need transitions, too. What we don’t want, though, is for our stories to sound like high-school essays, with the only goal being a higher grade. If we use an obvious, mechanical solution like the ones I showed above, the writing is not going to make an agent or editor happy. (It shouldn’t make your critique group happy, either.)
So what do we do? How do we keep each scene linked with the one that comes before, the one after, and–honestly–all the other scenes in our book. What can we do to put in that layer of connection that gives the story and the characters the depth and complexity our readers want.
We have to be elephants. That’s right–we have to never forget. Okay, go ahead and forget in your first draft. 🙂 As you revise, though, you’ll need to look at each scene and think about what’s come before. If your hero just got dumped by her boyfriend, you can’t have her move into the next scene in a smiling, happy-dance voice. And if your detective just broke open a major clue in his case, you don’t want to start the next scene showing him curled up with a good book and a glass of wine, ignoring the new path he just discovered. Not without a really good reason.
So you remember the connections. How do you show them, though, without boring the reader with a restatement of what’s come before or slowing down the action that’s still to come?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Show your hero stuck in, or fighting off, her mood from the scene before.
- Drop the characters into an action set up by the previous scene’s cliff-hanger.
- Send the story in a new direction, but let the main character show an awareness of that change. Let her remind herself (and the reader) that she’ll be coming back to the old, unresolved path soon.
- Write some dialog between a few characters, to (briefly!) tie together what just happened with what’s going to happen next.
Don’t, as we all did with that pat phrase on our essays, stick your transition awkwardly and obviously into the first sentence of every new scene. But keep the old scene in mind and watch for the right moment to weave the old in with the new. Show your readers the continuity of action and character that makes the story one story, not lots of separate stories connected only by chapter breaks.
How do you work out your transitions? How do you keep the connections playing out in each scene, smoothly and seamlessly?