An important part of structuring your story in any format is the transition between scenes. When not handled properly, time and/or location jumps in a narrative can become disorientating and confusing, making it harder for the audience to keep up with the action. There are three important things to focus on when transitioning between scenes: where the first scene ends, where the second scene begins, and how to connect the two.
It’s important that each scene have closure. When you leave a scene, you need to know that the goal of that scene was reached. If you leave the scene too early, before you receive that closure, your audience will be left hanging, feeling unsatisfied and off balance. You need to ‘cut away’ when the scene comes to its natural end, when everything is understood and the audience is ready to move onto the next idea. If you leave the scene too late, it drags your story, and makes it feel like the scene is longer than it is.
As with the end of a scene, the beginning of a new scene must feel natural. If you have to backtrack immediately after starting your scene in order to explain whats going on, then it means you’re not starting at the beginning of the scene. You can sometimes get away with doing this, if the reflection is placed naturally in the writing, but you shouldn’t try and push your luck. If all of your scenes start with an immediate backpedal to explain where everyone is, how they got there, and when it takes place, then you need to go back and fix some things.
Information about the change in time and location are important to include. If you didn’t, then it would be impossible for the audience to tell if, when or how these changes occurred. The most widely accepted way of transitioning between scenes is to detail the things done by the characters to go from scene A to scene B. They can do so by showing the transition between locations (“They walked the distance to the theatre, laughing the whole way”), points in time (“hours passed as she sat reading in her favorite chair”), or combinations of the two (“they drove for days, the grassy hillsides of home growing into a looming mountain range”). The information in the transition must do everything to set up the new scene that’s starting.
I am going to use a segment from “These Shallow Graves” by Jennifer Donnelly as an example of what not to do when transitioning between scenes. In chapter thirty-four, a scene is ending where the protagonist and her love interest meet secretly during a ball and make a plan for her to sneak out later that evening. The scene ends on an angsty moment as they both watch her almost arranged fiance dancing with the competitor for his affections. Chapter thirty-five immediately begins with the two of them having met up and halfway to their destination. It is then explained how the protagonist had left the party early, snuck out, and made it to the meeting point.
Feels kinda jenky huh? Here’s how we could smooth this out.
Their plan for meeting up that evening involves the protagonist telling her uncle (who an attendee) that she is feeling faint and using that as an excuse to leave the ball early. This would make more sense as a place to end the scene as it signals the beginning of the transition between locations. When she sneaks out the house is a good place to officially begin the next scene, as it signals another change in locations. Because the time spent at the protagonist’s home is not important to the overall story (her waiting for everyone to fall asleep) this could serve as the transition between the scene of the first and the scene of the second meetings. The cab ride from her house to the meeting place is also its own small transition, and is a good place to reflect on past information without interfering with anything else going on (such as dialogue and bonding between love interests).
Remember! All of the important things to keep in mind when writing scene transitions are:
Know where to end a scene.
Know where to begin a scene.
Know how to connect the scenes.