In Transition

This is something I prepared for our local writing group in case planned lessons didn’t use up the whole time we set aside for our meeting. One of the participants suggested talking about transitions between scenes and how to end scenes, and that’s an interesting part of how we craft stories.

I want to look at transitions and hooks between scenes and chapters, but in order to do that, I need to think through the groundwork of what scenes accomplish for the writer and reader.

What makes a scene?

Usually, we put two characters in conflict about goals. Character 1 wants a particular thing X, and Character 2 wants something else – a different objective, perhaps, a thing Y, or even simply opposing thing X. They enter into dialogue or action that expresses this, and by the end of the scene, something has changed, moving the characters toward their original goals or towards the new ones established as a result of the action of the scene.

Color study for Brandon Sanderson’s “Words of Radiance” by Michael Whelan.

A chapter might be made up of one or more scenes, and a book is made up of multiple chapters… so these scene dynamics create a song of sorts, a rhythm or an emotional effect similar to a roller coaster. We do well to pay attention to that dynamic throughout our book. You want variation. You want to create ebbs and flows, to have some chapters that lead toward increased conflict and tension, while other chapters resolve into peaceful transitions to the next part of the story. You want some moments that are exciting, with break-neck fast-paced action that pulls the reader into the next page or next chapter… and some moments that make for easy shifts into a different tone or state.

It strikes me this is more of a revision topic than necessarily a “while you’re writing” topic. In the first draft, your goal is to get all the important stuff onto the page or screen so you have something to play with… to put sand in the sandbox so you can build your castle. So if you’re writing and it feels like scenes die off or chapters seem disjointed, that’s okay–leave yourself a note to fix it later, and come back once you have a clearer perspective on the overall work. However, like many other techniques and tips about writing, having this bouncing around in your head might help the subconscious input come through stronger and make a better first draft that takes these things into account.

In music, a composer can put any notes together or into a sequence. However, it’s obvious that some flow together smoothly while others are jarring. Sometimes you want that dissonance. Sometimes you want a shift in music to pop in the listener’s ears… but more often than not, you want everything to flow, to build into bigger emotions, to swell and to fade in expected ways.

Similarly, you could have a sharp break between scenes, or end a scene on a calming note and dive into a gunfight in the next chapter. You can do whatever you want, just like a piano player can hit any key. The trick is understanding what effect different chords or keys will have on the music… and what effect different transitions will have on the emotional map of your book.

So what are you trying to do with transitions?

At the end of an argument or once the dust settles after some exciting action, everyone can’t just stare at each other before the scene “fades to black.” That’s going to read like a very awkward pause.

A transition finishes the previous thought or conflict and sets up the next one. All these conflicts, whether in dialogue or action, have consequences that carry over into the next scene.

Character 1 gets thing X. Now what? Is that good? Can it be “good but” – in other words, can there be an unexpected consequence that creates a new conflict or imposes some new problem on the character? (Indiana Jones gets the golden idol but that sets off the trap in the temple, and the chapter ends with him staring at the giant rock rolling his way.)

Character 1 finds out that they actually don’t want thing X, or maybe Character 2 successfully convinces or deters them. Now what? Are they persuaded that Thing Y, which Character 2 wants, is actually more important? (Indiana Jones says we have to go after the grail, but his dad convinces him that his diary is the fastest way to get there… which means going back to Nazi-infested Berlin, instead of forward toward the hidden city where they know the grail lies waiting.)

Transitions ask, “In light of what happened in this chapter or scene, what will happen next?” and they don’t answer that question. It lingers. It’s the curling finger beckoning the reader to read on, a gentle whisper of what’s to come. Answering the question is the job of the next scene or a later chapter. Transitions are a hint at the future, but they’re also a little touch in the tone or the dynamics that prepare the reader for that next portion. Transitions are a place for foreshadowing or for forecasting the consequence of the now-resolved scene.

Consider these three options: Character 1 knows that she got Character 2 on her side, so they’re going to pursue Goal X together…

…so they make a plan of attack (which you don’t reveal yet–that’s the purpose of the next scene or conflict)

…but Character 1 has a premonition or feeling she can’t shake, and knows she better keep her eyes on Character 2.

…and Character 2 declares, “I have an idea about how we can get this done… but you’re not going to like it.” (And you don’t lay it out, because it creates that lingering question in the reader.)

You may even want the tension and drama to temporarily resolve, like a pause in a song before it picks up again. Character 1 may know that she has to figure out three more mysteries as a result of whatever happened this chapter, but for now, they’re in a good place, and tomorrow can worry about its own troubles. That’s a fine closer and still has a sense of transition – I know what is coming next, but I’m gonna catch my breath a minute before I start sprinting after that next goal. Not every chapter can end with a high-stakes “tune into the next episode” moment, or those exciting events lose their power.

Heck, maybe you DO want that jarring, awkward pause where the battle ends and silence descends on the field, in order to create the right feeling for your book. So long as it’s planned and intentional, great.

My Paint skills are so lit. It's ok to stare at this image in wonder.
*Generally speaking* these are the flawed extremes and the happy medium of pacing, which grows from your transitions and conflicts.

Whether you create a pause or try to keep things moving at a steady pace, transitions are about a resolution to what just happened, and a gentle nudge forward.

What about hooks?

Hooks serve to pull the roller coaster along. Instead of a beckoning finger, this is grabbing the reader by the collar and tugging with all your might. There’s no steady pace or pause here. These are the moments where you’re trying to make sure your reader refuses to put the book down at 2 AM when they should be going to sleep. Maybe it’s the rising tension of conflicts and consequences that you’ve built up over a few chapters or scenes until the current scene ends with a clear “it’s going down.” Maybe it’s a cliffhanger or “to be continued” in the middle of the book where the reader has to know what happens next. Maybe it’s the plot twist that spins everything around for both the characters and the readers.

Hooks are about inescapable reactions – hinting at the choice the characters MUST make, a situation they MUST respond to. This may come in action or in conversation – the promise of unexpected revelations or emotional conflicts about to break out. Hooks might also be an obvious threat or impending doom.

Hooks might be about the consequences of the resolved scene or conflict, OR they might be the appearance of a game-changing shift as the result of other people’s actions.

Imagine a political thriller where the CIA agents are arguing on the steps of the Capitol building, trying to determine the best way to go after the terrorists….

…when the hero catches something the partner unintentionally reveals, proving they’re working for the villain (big increase in the stakes, WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?)

…when the hero’s partner suddenly draws her weapon and takes aim at the hero (obvious threat, WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?)

…when suddenly the Washington Monument goes up in a roiling fireball. (Plot twist! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!)

It bears repeating – not every chapter can end with a hook. That might work in some kind of campy serialized episodic adventure where Cliff Hanger always ends up dangling over the precipice or staring down the barrel of a gun. However, in meaningful writing, you can’t manhandle the reader and drag them through the entire book, or it feels like a breathless, emotional minefield. A song doesn’t just start at crazy complex overpowering dynamics and stay there the whole time. The Washington Monument can only blow up so many times.

The last thing you want is for your reader to stop caring, either because of boredom or because everything is a constant crisis. Mixing the different options for transitions and hooks will create the ebb and flow of an emotional “song” throughout your work. Considering the highs and lows of tension can help you create and even emphasize the emotional beats you want to stand out.

Your characters, your setting, your plot, and your take on the world can all be powerful and meaningful. Keep your end goal in mind (creating a satisfying, compelling, entertaining work), and then let all those conflicts and consequences sing.

What did I miss? What great plot hooks have you seen in print? Let’s share some perspectives! Leave a comment below. 

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