How to Format Transitions: Scenes, Point of View, and Time
Continuous narratives are difficult to pull off because they don’t skip the boring parts. Readers don’t care about every meal or hygienic routine. Rarely does a full story – especially a novel – take place in one continuous stream, so you will likely need to jump from one point to another. The most common jumps are between scenes, point of view, and time. The way you format these jumps will impact your story’s pace and clarity.
Transitions Combat Reader Confusion
Regardless of how you format your shifts in scenes, point of view, or time, you need a transition. A transition is a line or phrase guiding your reader from one thought or point to the next. To show the passage of time and indicate a new scene is starting a writer might say:
The next morning the fluffy clouds turned dark and grumbled, mirroring Kira’s darkening mood.
The first phrase, “the next morning,” lets the reader know how much time has passed. The section about the weather lets the reader know the characters are still in the same place, but the weather has changed. The final phrase tells the reader Kira is less happy than in the previous scene. In one sentence, you can ground your reader in a new time and place and establish which character is present. That is how a transition guides the reader.
When you use transitions, you avoid reader confusion. When you don’t use transitions, readers might not know where and when they are, who is present, or why they should care about the new scene. Sometimes your transitions will be so effective, you don’t need any formatting clues. Other times, a sentence or even paragraph isn’t enough. You also need a change in format to indicate you have jumped scenes or point of view.
Options for Formatting Jumps in Your Story
The simplest way to show a change in scene, setting, time, or point of view has occurred in your story is to use an extra space between paragraphs. Christen Terrill does this in her novel Here Lies Daniel Tate:
Mia hugged her mom fiercely, joined by Patrick and Lex, then Nicholas and me. A family hug, the Tates reunited, and almost everyone involved knowing it was bullshit.
Lex and Mia had planned an entire day of activities. This was key to my plan. They took Jessica for mani-pedis, and then we all met in Santa Monica, where it had been Mia’s idea to charter a yacht to take us looking for dolphins (292).
Here the extra space lets readers know the scene has changed and time has passed. Notice how Terrill still uses a transition even though she has used the extra space. She lets the reader know how much time has passed, who’s there, and what the family has been doing.
Extra space transitions tend to work better to show passages of time and change in scene. However, if you’ve switched points of view or made an unusually large jump for your story, you might want to use a less subtle format to indicate your shift.
Extra Space and Symbols
Another option for formatting your jumps in story is to use an extra space and symbols. Often authors use three number signs (hashmarks) or asterisks when drafting a story. During interior design, these marks might be changed to a more unique symbol. In The Book Thief, Markus Zusak uses three centered dots bracketed by extra spaces to show a larger shift in time or place. For smaller jumps, he uses a single extra space. Here’s an example:
The open window breathed a slice of air in.
That’s all it would take.
It was Rudy who stopped first. He tapped Liesel in the ribs with the back of his hand. . . . And how her heart began to beat.
* * *
On each previous occasion, when they found the window clamped firmly shut, Liesel’s outer disappointment had masked a ferocious relief (286-287).
The first jump shows a change in time only. The second jump shows a larger change in time, action, and place; that is why Zusak uses the three dots for the second transition.
Instead of only using symbols, you could also use a handful of words to set the scene or point of view as well as the extra spaces. This is a bit more experimental and should not be used in place of a transitional sentence or description. Zusak does this in The Book Thief to set Death’s thoughts apart from the rest of the narrative. Zusak’s way of formatting this is:
* * *A LITTLE SOMETHING TO * * *
DAMPEN THE EUPHORIA
She had gotten away with nothing.
The mayor’s wife had seen her, all right.
She was just waiting for the right moment.
Death is the narrator of the story. Usually he acts as a story teller, only revealing things through Liesel’s point of view, but occasionally, he will comment on the events or reveal information Liesel can’t know. Zusak uses format to set Death’s thoughts apart from the rest of the narrative.
If you have a character interjecting in your story, consider creating a format to indicate when these interjections begin and end. This will avoid reader confusion.
Chapter or Section Breaks
The clearest way to switch scenes or points of view is through chapter breaks. Most multiple point of view stories use chapter breaks whenever the POV changes. This not only signals a change is about to happen to the reader, it also gives the author the opportunity to use a character’s name in the chapter or section heading to let the reader know whose POV the new scene will be in.
Changes in scene or point of view are not the only reason to switch chapters. Short chapters help quicken the pace of a story, and longer chapters slow the pace. You might also prefer to end chapters on a hook or the dreaded cliff hanger to keep readers turning pages.
Why an Editor Recommends Using Format to Show Jumps in Your Story
The biggest reason you should use format as well as transitional sentences is for clarity. Even though readers don’t consciously recognize it, they have been trained to know a shift in the story is coming when they see an extra space, three centered symbols, or a chapter break. Use that to your advantage.
The extra white space also gives readers a chance to pause, finish taking in what they just read, and prepare for the change. When formatting your jumps in scene, point of view or time, be consistent and clear and use transitions to Ignite Your Ink.
How do you prefer to show a change in time, scene, or POV? Share your preferred format in the comments below. For more formatting tips and advice on writing from an editor and a free chart comparing the different points of view, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers transform their writing so it lingers with readers.