Stop the Chop: Writing Smooth Transitions

transitions8Have you ever read a book where the scene is progressing nicely, things are happening, people are talking and then … you’re somewhere else. From one paragraph to the next, you’ve gone from a moonlit beach to a crowded avenue. You were just starting to understand the relationship between John and Marsha and now suddenly you’re introduced to Tony.

“Marsha, hello,” John called brightly. He was obviously pleased to see her. His eyes shone at her with reflected moonlight.

“Hello, John.” Her voice was low, cautious. Her eyes darted nervously about the deserted beach, and she caught her lower lip in her teeth.

“How are you?” he asked as he stopped in front of her.

Tony cursed the Black Friday crowds while he shouldered his way down the sidewalk. He hated shopping.

Does this make you do a double-take? Do you have to go back and re-read just to make sure you didn’t miss something? In recent months I’ve read more than a few books that had trouble with transitions. Now I’ve yammered on before about how, when we write, we need to make sure the reader is flowing along with us effortlessly. Yes, there may be drama in the story and yes, there may be tension, but there shouldn’t be any of that in the reader’s efforts to follow the story. The reader may need to work at piecing out the story line in a thriller, may need to tease out the truth from the lies and misdirections in a mystery, but they should not have to work at following the writing. In my opinion, if the reader does have to work at that, we haven’t done our job well at all.

There are several ways to indicate a change of time or scene. A very simple way is to put an extra space between the paragraphs.

“Hello,” John called brightly. He was obviously pleased to see her. His eyes shone at her with reflected moonlight.

“Hello, John.” Her voice was low, cautious. Her eyes darted nervously about the deserted beach, and she caught her lower lip in her teeth.

“How are you?” he asked as he stopped in front of her.

 

Tony cursed the Black Friday crowds while he shouldered his way down the sidewalk. He hated shopping.

The space gives us a visual clue that something has changed, and it sets us up immediately — without reading another word — that something different is going on. Equate this to the “fade to black” in films. You know when the scene fades to black that you’re either going to a different time or a different place, even if it’s still a scene with the same characters.

I have to add a small caveat here. With the popularity of eBooks, we unfortunately often see formatting glitches, generally in the category of extra spaces where there shouldn’t be one (as well as indent anomalies). The single extra space between paragraphs is a simple, subtle way of indicating a shift, but with eBooks, it might be better to be more obvious, just in case. For that reason, I suggest the use of centered asterisks (either three or five) between paragraphs, like this:

“How are you?” he asked as he stopped in front of her.

*****

Tony cursed the Black Friday crowds while he shouldered his way down the sidewalk. He hated shopping.

Another more direct way is to preface your next sentence with a reference to time or place. It might look like:

The next day, Tony cursed the Black Friday crowds while he shouldered his way down the sidewalk. He hated shopping.

Or:

In Times Square, Tony cursed the Black Friday crowds while he shouldered his way down the sidewalk. He hated shopping.

No, it’s not particularly elegant, but it’s unmistakable. The readers don’t have to wonder where or when they are. Those few words set them up immediately for the next scene.

If you don’t want to use anything as obvious as the above, there’s another way. That’s to put a period on the end of your paragraph. What I mean by this is that you can end your paragraph with a line that wraps up the scene, that gives it a final, definitive feel to it, even if it also promises there’s more to come. We see this often in soap operas (no, I don’t watch them, but I have surfed through enough of them from time to time). It might look like this:

“Hello, John.” Her voice was low, cautious. Her eyes darted nervously about the deserted beach, and she caught her lower lip in her teeth.

“How are you?” he asked as he stopped in front of her. He folded his arms across his chest, forming a barrier between her and any escape she might consider. This time, he would make sure she wasn’t going anywhere until she explained where she’d been.

Or:

“Hello, John.” Her voice was low, cautious. Her eyes darted nervously about the deserted beach, and she caught her lower lip in her teeth.

“How are you?” he asked as he stopped in front of her.

Marsha sighed in tired resignation. She should have told him about the surgery a long time ago. She owed him that much, at least. “It’s a long story,” she said. “We’d better sit.”

I realize this is all subjective and can be very nebulous when we’re trying to tie it down, but it’s like the old definition of quality. You may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it. And you also know when it’s not working. What do you think? What tools do you use to make good transitions?

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

24 thoughts on “Stop the Chop: Writing Smooth Transitions”

  1. Esp liked :

    “The reader may need to work at piecing out the story line in a thriller, may need to tease out the truth from the lies and misdirections in a mystery, but they should not have to work at following the writing.”

    I agree ’bout the extra space not working well in ebooks. Too many times the first scene ends near the end of a digital page, and the new scene isn’t apparent at first on the new epage. I like & use the asterisk idea.

    And in longer works, like a novella or longer, experimenting with very short chapters.

    Nice post, thanks so much Melissa (smiles)

  2. I’m so glad you posted this just now. I am reading a book where this happens quite a bit, among other things.

    When I write I use the asterisk option to indicate changes. As you say, the extra space is often mistaken for an error, or extra spaces appear where they don’t belong. Asterisks eliminate confusion.

    1. I must confess, I didn’t think of the asterisks option right away. Kat suggested it, because I tend to think in terms of print books (giving away my age now) and not e-books. But once she mentioned it, I knew she was right. E-books definitely take a little extra thought, just because they can format a page so unpredictably.

  3. I’ve been using blank lines, but I guess I need to rethink that.

    In my last series, which had a bit of a thriller feel to it (or at least, I thought so 😀 ), I used datelines between some sections.

    Good post, Melissa. Food for thought.

    1. I have almost always used just the blank lines, Lynne, but as I said above, that’s because I think first and foremost print books. Print books are so much more agreeable–the pages stay where you put them! Datelines are also excellent devices, and I have used those, too, just didn’t think to include them. Obviously my research was incomplete. Good thing I asked for input!

      1. I used to use the blank line, but in e-book formatting, you don’t know where the paragraphs are going to fall. I switched to a little centered line of dashes.

    2. I’ve seen datelines used in Michael Crichton’s work and other writers (Lee Child), both as section and chapter breaks. I really liked them as a reader, works really well.

  4. Beware of using blank spaces to create scene break! When you convert text say from courier to times new roman for publication, the blank might disappear altogether. This will give you no end of trouble.
    Better to use the asterisk or a glyph
    and flush left the beginning of the next scene.
    If you don’t want a scene break, then transition with some phrase that gives a sense of passing time.
    Am not a fan of bedeviling the reader by ignoring the basics.

    1. Olivia, you bring up a good point to always check formatting after making any changes to the font. A simple change can have surprising results. Glad you’re not for “bedeviling.” I’m sure your readers appreciate it.

  5. I have seen scene changes many different ways and I am who believes there should be something better than an extra space. In my first contemporary romance, I use (and suggest when editing) that the first 3 words in the the first paragraph of the scene change be bolded with an extra space between scene changes. Even in print I use the bold 3 words of the first paragraph but in ebooks, I think it is better to using anything but a blank space because formatting can be tricky and off.

    Another option is to start a new chapter so there is no mistaking we are in someone else’s head or in a different time or place.

    Great post, Melissa

  6. I went through many frustrating attempts at uploading to ePublication, with the meat grinder and others telling me I was using a mixture of formatting styles that they could not permit (that was putting in the extra space where there occurred a natural break); and there was no advice anywhere from the uploading instructions on any of the, various sites. I found, through a process of elimination, that the best option for all ePublications was the asterisks.

    Excellent subject to raise, Melissa, wish I’d thought of it.

    1. TD, that’s good info to know. I never ran into any problem uploading to Smashwords, but I haven’t uploaded directly to ePub. It sounds like the asterisks (or glyphs) wins!

  7. Great info, Melissa. I will go back through my WIP and make sure I didn’t commit this “chop”.

  8. Oh, boy! This was a good post. I always use something for POV and scene changes. I like the idea of a glyph. I just didn’t know what it was called. I noticed early on we cannot use print books as guides to format/construct digital books. No way. I want a separator of some sort. I don’t care what it is–my eyes pick it up and send it to my brain. I see so dang many ebooks that double space between sentences. It drives me nuts until I get into the story–if I can get into the story. I don’t know if double spacing is deliberate, or a conscious decision on the author’s part. A themed glyph is a terrific device. Next book. Mmmm. Or perhaps I’ll drive my formatter nuts by insisting upon a such a revision. Going now…
    Oh wait! Melissa… Your example is visual. I did see Marsha’s eyeballs darting in and out of the waves like a beachball on the deserted beach. Laffin’! That was another post–traveling body parts. I know what you meant–and so will the reader. We had that discussion! Loved it, too.

    1. Jackie, I think glyphs wins the poll, especially in e-books, as we’ve all agreed here, since they can be cantankerous. And now we all have another fun thing to develop for our next books.

      I confess I forgot about darting body parts when I wrote the example, LOL. Have to keep a (dismembered) eye on that!

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