Write great protagonists!
I'll be at LDSPMA
Tips organized by topic
Read about me
Editing Services
Read Testimonials
Learn the "bones" of story

Monday, October 5, 2020

2 Tricks for Scene Transitions

As novelists and short story writers, we probably don't think about scene transitions too much. Don't get me wrong, we may take a long time seeking out the perfect hook or the most-intriguing opening, and we may write and rewrite the end of the scene to get it just right. But when it comes to moving from one scene to another . . . it's probably something we feel more rather than really think about. 

And that's okay, and you can be totally successful that way. 

But last year I learned about two scene transition techniques that have stuck with me. Unsurprisingly, they come from film, a medium where scene transitions are more obvious and more touchy. 

Lately I've been more and more mindful of them in my writing and have found they can be quite helpful when trying to get the flow between passages just right.

They come from the book Story by Robert McKee.

In it, McKee explains that when it comes to successful scene transitions, you really have two options:

1 - Emphasize a likeness between the end of the last scene and the beginning of the next scene. 

2 - Emphasize a difference between the end of the last scene and the beginning of the next scene. (aka, create contrast, as I like to say)

In reality, both of these approaches can be super helpful in other aspects of writing, but let's stick to the subject today, which is scene transitions. 

While the likeness and difference can be obvious, most of the time, it's better that they are not too obvious, so they don't draw undue attention to themselves. 

McKee gives some great examples:

1 - A characterization trait. In common: Cut from a bratty child to a childish adult.  In opposition: Cut from awkward protagonist to elegant antagonist. 

2 - An action. In common: From the beginning of lovemaking to savoring the afterglow. In opposition: from chatter to cold silence.

3 - An object. In common: From greenhouse interior to woodland exterior. In opposition: From the Congo to Antarctica

4 - A word. In common: A phrase repeated from scene to scene. In opposition: From compliment to curse.

5 - A quality of light. In common: From shadows at dawn to shade at sunset. In opposition: From blue to red. 

6 - A sound. In common: From waves lapping a shore to the rise and fall of a sleeper's breath. In opposition: From silk caressing skin to the grinding of gears.

7 - An idea. In common: From a child's birth to an overture. In opposition: From a painter's empty canvas to an old man dying.

Obviously these examples are aimed at film, but you could make them all work in a short story or a novel, should you want to. 

Basically, these approaches help with flow. 

They can also be great at smoothing over subjects and ideas that may be repeating. 

Recently, I was working on two consecutive scenes, with two different sets of characters, and each touched on the subject of fasting (long story short, it relates to a magic system/worldbuilding thing I have going on). I was wondering how to address this without sounding repetitive, when Robert McKee's advice came to mind. 

I realized the best idea was to have scene "A" end with the viewpoint character breaking a fast and have scene "B" start with the viewpoint character's stomach groaning. 

Seems simple, but it solved my problem and helps the reader transition smoothly from one passage to the next. I also don't have to circle around back to a subject I was already just addressing. 

Obviously you don't have to do this sort of thing every time, but they are helpful tricks for when you want to get that flow just right. 

Ideally in the same sentence, or in one coming soon after, you plant in a great hook. And get the setup in. And get the character's goals. And get the stakes . . . and, yeah, you get the idea (scene structure will be another day). 

Anyway, I hope these simple techniques are helpful to you!


  1. Now that we know how to flow between scenes how should we use it? When should scenes flow smoothly and when should there be a hard break? Perhaps an abrupt transition is better after a major event? To emphasize the change?

    1. Those are all good points that I think I need to think about some more. I also think it gets a little tricky when we talk about it. Because when I was using it recently, I still had a whole page break (there was a new chapter starting for the new scene), but I felt like having that sort of flow (content-wise) from the end of one chapter to beginning of another, worked well and was what I needed.

      Sorta like . . .
      [Character breaks his fast]
      [New Chapter]
      [Character's stomach groans]

      But likewise, you could have no visual break and segue into the next scene, which these tricks are obviously great for.

      Like instead, I could have written . . .

      [Character breaks fast][transitional words][New viewpoint character's stomach groans]

      Less popular today, but not technically wrong.

      I maybe should have clarified that better in this post.

      For actual, visual hard breaks, I totally agree that those are fantastic for dramatic moments and emphasis and abrupt changes.

      So I guess . . . I feel like, visually speaking, these tricks work whether or not you want to use a hard break. On the other hand, they aren't as necessary if you are using a hard break.

      I'm sorry, I probably sound a bit rambly, but I guess when I'm using these, they are more of something I'm "feeling," and maybe haven't consciously put into words when to best use them and when to throw them out. And obviously this is more critical in film, where you *must* pay attention to scene transitions, given the medium.

      Anyway, those are my thoughts! But I'll think about it some more. Thanks for commenting.


I love comments :)