Friday, March 16, 2018

Tips for Writing Scene Breaks and Transitions in Your Novel

One thing I've always envied about movies is their seamless scene transitions. A clever camera angle, a  change in music, viola! You've entered a new scene and didn't even know it happened.

How can we do that in books?

We can't.

But we don't need to, either.

Scene transitions don't need to be hidden in novels the way they do in movies. You can spot-light them if you want to. Or not. Whatever works for your story. Scene transitions can be used in a plethora of ways: To show off your sense of pacing, to create tension, to change POV and character voice, to further your plot.
Tips for Writing Scene Breaks and Transitions in Your Novel
But before we go into any of that, let's answer the question:

What is a scene break? 

Simple. Scene breaks are any time you change location, time period, or character POV in a story. They often come in the form of a new chapter, but can also be indicated mid-chapter with various symbols like: 

Or any other symbol, really. 

Okay, with that out of the way:

When do I transition from one scene to another? 

That's up to you. Next question? 

Just kidding. 

While it is up to you, let me give you some scenarios in which scene transitions are helpful: 

When a scene would be better shown from a different POV. This only applies if you're writing from multiple POVs, but: If you know a scene will be more powerful from a specific character's POV, switch over to them by using a scene break. You don't have to pick up at the exact point that the other scene left off, either. You can take it up a little bit before, a little bit after, or even a lot before or a lot after. Whatever works best. 

When you need to change locations. You don't have to show characters traveling from one place to another (unless you feel it is important to the story). Scene breaks are a good way to jump past all of those tedious details.

When you need to indicate a time lapse. Again, you don't have to show every moment of your character's life. Feel free to skip over irrelevant parts of their day, week, month, or year(s) using scene transitions.

How can I use them effectively?  

Well, you're already on the right track given that you're getting writing advice from me, Queen of Writing Advice (Princess? Noble? Errrr....Merchant? Maybe I'm a jester? Yeah. That sounds right. Crap. I don't want to be jester. Help!).

1. Use them to cut out the boring parts. Seriously. That boring scene you're writing that bores even you as you type? Nobody wants to read it. Not sure if it's boring? Pretend your reader is Sherlock and then see if the scene holds up (hint: It probably won't).
Unless the scene has some vital piece of information, skip it. Transition into a new scene. Even if it does have a vital piece of information, you can probably transition to a newer, more exciting scene and add that information there.

2. Use them to build tension. You know how authors put cliffhangers at the end of novels? You can use that same principle for scene breaks, but just on a smaller scale. So, retaining-wall-hangers instead of cliffhangers. Yes. That's a completely legitimate name for it. You can transition away just when things are reaching its peak. Keeps people on their toes. However, be sure to read point 4 to make sure you aren't overdoing it.

3. Use them to keep secrets. Does one of your characters know an important plot point you don't want to reveal to your reader until later? Transition into a new scene from a different character's POV. Or even a new scene with the same character, but just in a scenario where they wouldn't be thinking of or acting on the secret. That being said...

4. Don't use them so often that you disorient or frustrate your reader. You don't want to head-hop so often that your reader loses track of which character is doing what. And you don't want to have so many retaining-wall-hangers (stop smirking! It's a totally acceptable name) that your reader loses faith in your ability to tie up loose ends or produce a satisfying climax.

What are the rules? 

Pffft. Please. Have you learned nothing from this blog? There are no writing rules. Just guidelines. And those ones aren't always good or helpful. But I'll humor you here: 

Don't have too many scene breaks too close together. Generally, a standard 10-page chapter has about one or two scene breaks in it (supposing the author uses scene breaks...many don't). But of course there's no reason you can't do more than that. Just make sure it doesn't mess with your story's flow and pacing. 

Be consistent. You want to try to maintain the same number of scene breaks per chapter. Supposedly. Personally? I think this is idiotic. But I generally think that about most writing rules, so...I guess you'll just have to figure out what works best for you. Use your head. 
C'mon. It's not that scary. 

The way you transition does not have to be uniform. You don't have to have the same type of transition style in each scene (some will say you will, know my feelings on writing rules). If you need the scene to end abruptly for pacing or mood reasons, then cut the scene off abruptly. If you want to end the scene with a piece of dialogue, do so. If you feel symbolism is the way to go, dive on in. 

*dusts off hands* I didn't think I could stretch a discussion on scene breaks into a full blog post, but I did. Yay!

Just remember these key points and you'll be fine: 1) Use scene breaks and transitions to be not-boring. 2) Be like Loki. Do what you want. 

Have tips and tricks of your own for writing scene breaks and transitions? Or maybe you have questions? Please leave them in the comment section! 

Have writing, reading, or writer's life questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

Related articles:
How to Effectively Write from Multiple POVs
What To Do When Your Story Bogs Down
8 Ways To Use Movie Watching To Improve Your Writing
Why You Shouldn't Listen to Writing Tips Blogs

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  1. This was really helpful! I'm currently editing and transitions are HARD.

    Also, that Rex .gif was perfection.

    1. So glad this helped you!

      And YES. I love that gif. I wish I could find an excuse to use it in all my posts. =D

  2. So if some writers don't use scene breaks or transitions at they just use one scene per chapter? How does that work out? Scene transitions are definitely one of my weaker areas. :-/

    1. Yes, if you don't have scene breaks within your chapters, than the end of a chapter can be used as a scene break. It doesn't have to be (one chapter can be a direct continuation of the next), but you can absolutely use it as a scene break. The same tips apply in that scenario versus scene breaks within chapters. =) Hope that helps!

  3. I struggle quite a bit with these. I prefer to read shorter chapters but the chapters I write are long as heck.

    1. Haha! Same. Scene breaks sound like a good idea for you if your chapters are longer (though you can definitely have long chapters without scene breaks).

  4. Scene transitions can be fun, and I enjoy using cliffhangers at the end of a chapter. Though I will say, one of my least favorite scene transitions is when the author ends a scene with a certain line and opens the next scene/chapter with the same line. While this type of mirror can work in films, it doesn't in books. Assume your reader is a little smarter than that. (But not too smart, which I am terrible at. I just assume the reader knows everything.) Thanks for the post, Hannah!

    1. "Assume your reader is a little smarter than that. But not too smart." Lol! Yes. That is a perfect way to write.

      I agree: I'm not a fan of the same line being used at the end of one scene and the beginning of another. It can work, but usually not.

      Thanks for the great comment!


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