On Writing: Transitions and Chapter Breaks


I have been wanting to post about transitions for ages now, and I haven’t been sure how to approach the subject.  Faith has posted about them before — a pair of posts that you can read here and here — and she did a masterful job of talking about using prose to smooth us through those moments mid-chapter when we need to relocate a character or show the passage of time in a way that does not upset the flow of narrative and that does not rely on clunky crutches.  What I want to talk about is a little different:  Today we’re going to focus on chapter breaks and how to make the most of them.

Let me start with a definition:  A transition in a book or story is pretty much any passage or device that bridges moments of discontinuity in our writing.  Changes in time, changes in setting, changes in point of view character, even changes in mood.  In our own lives, our transitions are gradual and fairly easy to manage.  Time is linear; when we change locations we are aware of it; and if we are changing point of view — well, that’s between us and our psychiatrists.  But in writing, transitions allow us to skip stuff that might not be interesting to our readers and focus on the scenes that further our narratives.  In an age of 100,000 word novels and leaner storylines, our transitions are more important than ever.  The problem, of course, is that every book is different, and so the best I can do is tell you how I handle different sorts of transitions in my own work.  Your own transitions will be as unique and idiosyncratic as your characters, your plotline, and your settings.

As I say, I’m going to focus on the transitions that coincide with chapter breaks, because to my mind they are more than just shifts in scene; they are actually opportunities to propel your narrative forward.  That seems counter-intuitive in a way — how can a break in the narrative propel it forward?  But the truth is, handled well, such breaks actually help with pacing and flow.  There are of course different kinds of chapter transitions, and I’ll discuss a few of them here using examples from my books.

1) The Cliffhanger:  This type of transition works best in books that have multiple point of view characters and, usually, multiple plot threads.  One of the challenges of writing such a book is maintaining several storylines at once and keeping them roughly synchronized.  Ideally, you want your various story threads to appear to be happening simultaneously, and so you will find yourself leaving off with one set of characters and circumstances to check in with another.  But of course you don’t want to leave your characters just anywhere.  Rather, you want to leave your readers breathless at the end of each scene desperate to know more.  As a reader, when I’m engrossed in a book by an author who handles these sorts of transitions well, I often find myself almost getting angry with the author for cutting away from a certain character. That is, until I realize after about two sentences in this new point of view that I have been really eager to get back to this storyline as well.  Here’s an example from Bonds of Vengeance, the third book in my Winds of the Forelands quintet. 

He couldn’t see for the fire in his limbs, the pulsing anguish screaming in his mind.  Magic could save him; he knew that.  He could heal his mangled limbs.  He could turn his attacker’s power back on itself.  He could shatter bones and burn flesh.  He was a Weaver, and all of these magics were his.  But pain held him as if iron shackles, denying him his strength and his will.
“I’ve bested a Weaver,” a voice said, seeming to come from a great distance.
And as the words echoed in his head, like the tolling of far off bells, Grinsa sensed the man gathering his power one last time to strike the killing blow.

Chapter 29

A voice in his mind — Brienne’s perhaps, or his mother’s — screamed at him that this was folly, that he was racing headlong to his death.  But still Tavis ran, his eyes fixed on the assassin.  He was vaguely aware that Grinsa was no longer with him and he felt certain that this was important somehow.  But he didn’t stop to think it all through.  The singer fled, and Tavis pursued.

Notice that there are parallels between the passage in Grinsa’s point of view and the one in Tavis’s.  The tolling bells in Grinsa’s mind are echoed, if you will, in the warning voices in Tavis’s, smoothing the transition, tying one storyline to the next.  Readers will be (I hope) desperate to know what happens to Grinsa, but it shouldn’t take long for Tavis’s pursuit, his race toward death to draw them in to that thread.  As a result, these transitions propel the story forward — every transition is both a plot point that ratchets up the tension of the story AND a temporary deferral of satisfaction that keeps the reader turning the page.

2) The Time Warp:  Dealing with gaps in time can be a difficult challenge for any writer.  As I mentioned above, in life we deal with the boring moments between dramas and important events because they are simply what comes next.  But if we were writing the story of our own lives in novel form we might skip the boring commute home and just transition between the confrontation with our boss at work and the romantic dinner with our spouse at home.  Those are the salient events, the plot points, as it were.  And in our novels we need to find a way to bridge them that not only maintains narrative tension but actually enhances it.  Another example, this one from The Horsemen’s Gambit, the middle volume of my Blood of the Southlands trilogy.

“What if you’re right and we were more united than we’ve been at any time since?  What if the Eandi of that time were so united that they were even willing to fight alongside the Mettai?”
He stared at her.  “The Mettai,” he said, the word coming out as softly as a breath.
Tirnya nodded.  “The Mettai.  What if we succeeded in those early days of the wars because like the white-hairs we didn’t only carry weapons into battle, we carried magic as well?”
She didn’t wait for his answer.  She stood, drained her cup, and spun away from the table.
“Where are you going?” Enly called after her.
“Home,” she said over her shoulder.  “I need to speak with my father.”

Chapter 14

    Jenoe’s reaction was not quite what Tirnya had expected.  The breathless, wide-eyed whisper she had drawn from Enly, the quickened pulse and rush of excitement she had felt herself — these, or some variation, were what she also expected from her father.
    Instead, he merely stared back at her, appearing somewhat perplexed, and said, “The Mettai?”

Notice that I don’t bother to say anything about her walk home or even to repeat the progression of the conversation that first leads to Tirnya’s epiphany about the Mettai.  By having her father repeat “The Mettai,” I again create parallels that link the previous scene to the new one.  But by changing the tone of voice, changing it to a question, I make it clear that the plot has taken a twist, that the logic that seemed so clear to Tirnya and Enly is lost on Tirnya’s father. This is an important point in the book, and using that chapter break, I manage to take a fairly large forward step in the span of less than 200 words.

3) The Beat:  In this case “beat” refers not to violence or music, but that moment in a conversation when everything pauses, when the world seems to shift.  This is a transition that actually goes nowhere at all, but rather emphasizes a key moment, allowing the reader time to go “Wow!  That is so cool!” before reading on.  Sometimes, a scene is too long for a single chapter.  Knowing where to insert that chapter break can be tricky.  The beat gives you that perfect insertion point.  You let the reader pause, but you do so at a place that actually raises the bar in terms of excitement and tension, so that in the end the chapter break actually has the effect of making your reader want to read on.  Here’s an example from Thieftaker (which, for those who haven’t heard, will be released on July 3rd.  That’s right:  You can celebrate the July 4th holiday by going back in time to Colonial Boston!  But I digress…)

A few men stood at the bar, mugs of ale in their hands. Ethan had heard conversations while coming down to the pub, but all of them ceased when he walked in. The men simply stared at him, their expressions far from welcoming.
    Ethan stared back. Up on the street, in the light of day, he had considered this a fine idea. Down here in the inconstant gloom, he was having second thoughts.
    “My name is Ethan Kaille,” he finally said. “I want to speak with those who led the demonstrations of three nights past.”
    At first, no one answered. But then a single figure stepped away from the bar, a tankard of ale in his hand. He was about Ethan’s height and age, and he stood straight-backed, his pale blue eyes meeting and holding Ethan’s gaze. He wore a simple white shirt and black breeches, a red waistcoat and a powdered tie wig.
    “Good day, Mister Kaille,” he said in a ringing voice. “We’ve been expecting you. My name is Samuel Adams.”

Chapter 14

    Adams walked to where Ethan stood, and proffered a hand, which Ethan gripped.
    “I’m pleased to meet you, Mister Kaille,” he said, a disarming smile on his ruddy face. “I’ve heard a good deal about you.”
    “And every man in Boston hears a good deal about Samuel Adams.”

This is the first time we meet Adams.  And prior to the moment the man speaks, my readers have no idea who it is Ethan has gone to see.  It almost doesn’t matter what comes after the chapter break; anyone with any curiosity at all about where the story is headed will eagerly turn the page.  And, again, that’s exactly what I want.

This post is already running longer than I would have liked, so I’m going to hold off on offering more examples.  There are, of course, other uses of the chapter break transition, other ways to use those breaks in the narrative to up the tension and accelerate the plot.  But let’s talk about these for now.  What sorts of transitions do you prefer as a reader?  What kind give you the most trouble as a writer?

David B. Coe

29 comments to On Writing: Transitions and Chapter Breaks

  • Excellent post, David, with lovely examples. As you know, the recent trend has been towards shorter chapters (something that struck me most forecfully with Da Vinci Code and really set a trend for bite-sized chapters), so these transitional moments have become more frequent. My middle grades chapters rarely run more than 10 pages and they are often a lot less. Your last example is particularly useful for this, since I often find that my scene is nowhere near over but I feel my reader needs a break. It’s great to be able to end a chapter mid way through a scene and justify the break by punching up an image or impression so that, as with the appearance of Adams, I get a little extra punch and teh go right back to the same action in the next chapter.

  • TwilightHero

    The beat. As a reader and a writer, I love the beat. Placing the chapter break at a point of significance does indeed make you want to see what happens next. I’m forever making scenes longer than I expected and having to split them – working on one now as it happens 🙂 – so I’ve gotten into the habit of finding parts of scenes that can be used as ‘pause’ moments. Cliffhangers too, but since my main characters are all together most of the time, this ends up being a shift in POV only, where you find out how things are resolved right away, just from someone else’s eyes.

    One transition I have trouble with is switching from close third-person – where stuff is happening as one person sees it – to third-person omniscient – where stuff is happening that no one sees, but is critical to the story. I worry it’ll come across as too bland, since I’ve always preferred how the POV character’s personality makes what’s happening more…well…personal. Still, since they are the important bits…maybe it’s just me 🙂

  • Whew. Going to be referencing this post for my book – maybe this can help with figuring out what to cut! 🙂 Thanks for the examples and analysis – it’s quite helpful to see what you’ve done and why. I think the ones I need to harness more often are “time warp” and “beat”!

    Also, what is your opinion of switching POVs during a “beat”?

  • A.J., thanks. I agree that the beat approach is becoming more and more valuable as the market changes. My chapters have gotten far, far shorter as I have moved through my career, not because of anything in the market, but because I’ve gotten better at pacing and mapping out my books. And I’ve had to rely increasingly on devices that allow me to break up scenes that aren’t ready to end just yet. I also agree with the implied point of your comments about the current trend, ie. that chapters can be too short, just as they can be too long. There is a balance there, and I think that filling a conversation with unnatural beats in order to break it up conveniently is NOT a solution.

    TH, I love the beat, too. See what I wrote to A.J. just above. As to your second paragraph, you should know that the market has moved quite decisively away from third-person omniscient, and so you should probably look for ways to convey the necessary information within a closer 3rd person voice. Editors and agents really prefer to see all narrative and description handled a manner consistent with identifiable point of view characters; otherwise what you wind up with is sections of story in which you’re telling rather than showing. Something to watch for. Thanks for the comment.

    Scribe, thanks. Glad you like the post. To answer your question, I think that using breaks at those “beat” moments to shift to another character’s POV can be quite effective. It’s certainly something I do a lot when writing multi-POV books. That way you can have one character deliver the key line, and then shift to see how another character responds to it. As I say, very effective.

  • This is great! I’ve never thought of chapter closings in this way, but it makes total sense. I usually (but not always) switch POV when I switch chapters (sometimes scenes within chapters, but then I use the *** transition, too). I try to go for the cliffhanger or the beat. I’ve had to do the time warp and it gave me a lot of trouble. I have two chapters and then a three year break for the characters–it picks up again when the “fateful events” of C1 and 2 come home to roost. But how do I move three years? At first I did the absolutely elegant “Three years later…” Yeah, not so elegant. Since I was picking up with POV 1, Mary, from chapter 1, what I did was continue the action from chapter 1. At the end of C1, she’s getting ready to leave LA for NC. In C 3, she arrives in NC from LA, but three years have passed–I’m hoping it gives the sense that the three years have been more of the same, over and over, and that the transition catches her weariness with the monotonous routine she’s been in and highlights her desire to stop.

  • Thank you, Emily. Those long time lags in a narrative can be difficult. I had time lags of that sort in the LonTobyn series, but they fell in between books, which made them much easier to deal with! One thing to think about — and this not all that elegant, but it is effective and one sees it done quite a bit — is to divide your book into sections, have a blank page in between each one, and maybe even put a year on the first page of each section. So that Section One is simply called (for instance) “2007” and Section Two is called “2010.” Again, not the most elegant approach, but perhaps less clunky than working in the phrase “Three years later….” 😉

  • Elegant, David.

    20 yrs ago I wrote 20+ page chapters, with the longest being 27 pages of rather dense prose (dense meaning thick not stupid – I hope.) I now stop at 10 to 15 pages. Personally I detest the 4 to 8 page chapter. It reeks of lazy writing, or, perhaps even worse, a writer trying to pad space into a book with too few words. As a reader, I prefer chapters long enough for me to get my teeth in to the writer’s moment and character’s situation, and the current use of micro-chapters doesn’t allow that.

    I’ve found that in urban fantasy, I am using cliffhanger chapter endings and snark chapter endings (which are a form of the *beat* but with the changeover occuring in the middle of a moment of sarcasm.) I see that snark beat often in this genre and it seems to be an element particular to UF.

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting David. Breaks turns out to be one of those things that slipped my mind when commenting on your strengths and weaknesses post a while back and I think that I handle them pretty well.

    Looking back on it, I find that I tend to favor the Beat type followed by the Time Warp. Speaking personally, I find that what I want to accomplish most as a writer when coming up on one of those kinds of breaks is to leave it so that you HAVE to at least turn the page. Maybe I’m odd that way, but if you’ve got to put my story down, I’d much rather you put it down in the middle of the chapter than at the end. Kind of like hitting the “Pause” button. Truth be told, I don’t really want you to put my story down at all until you’ve reached the end, but I accept that there are some things (like sleep) that need doing 🙂

    This wasn’t something that I’d paid much attention to in the past, but I’ll definitely do so in the future. I like your idea of using certain elements to create bridges between the “Sides” of the transition like your cliffhanger example.

    If I might be allowed to make a suggestion, Pea: if absolutely nothing worth noting happens in those three years, you could insert 3, one page, chapters with just the year. Something like Chapt 4: 2008
    Chapt 5: 2009 Chapt 6: 2010 Chapt 7: “Resume story here…” In terms of elegance, it’s probably about as subtle as an air horn, but, without hinting at what you’re doing, you reader will pick up on the passage of time on their own. You’d be showing the passage of time rather than telling 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you very much for this post. I definitely really need to work on ALL of these. In my current WIP, I’ve got multiple POV characters, so while a couple chapter breaks serves as Beats, most of them are for switching character and point-in-time. However, I think only three (out of 44) count as cliff-hangers, since narrative that skips back and forth in time (even among different) characters, is a bit nails-on-chalkboard for me. Also, every time I leave a character at least a day is going to pass until we’re back to that character again. The trouble that I’ve really been having is that the amount of time that does pass each time is pretty variable (between one and ten) days, and I’m still pretty un-smooth when it comes to trying to indicate how much time has passed at the beginning of each chapter.

    As a reader, I often really *want* to be able to pause my reading at a chapter break, so I find chapters that always end in cliff-hangers pretty obnoxious. However, the forward momentum in my WIP probably does suffer from the more wrapped-up type of chapter endings I tend to use. I often try to introduce something disturbing or interesting or thought-provoking near the end of the chapter, but that definitely doesn’t have the same urgency as more action-oriented transitions.

  • As a reader, I can’t say I prefer any particular type of transition. Generally, I prefer transitions that are done well. But for specific types, I prefer a good variety. Too much of any one kind gets too repetetive, predictable, and dull.

    (Of course, the “character POV transition” is only valid in books with multiple POV characters, which means I don’t expect those in most first-person POV stories.)

  • I’m a huge fan of #3. It’s not quite a cliffhanger so I can put the book down if, say, I need to go to sleep, but it’s enough of a prompt that the next moment I get, I’ll pick up the book again.

    I’m not a fan of transitions for no reason. I see this a lot in romance, which is third-person limited between two people. It gets annoying when the switiching happens mid-scene, and then also sometimes as a transition. But as Stephen said, writing first person means that there isn’t much of that.

    One of my beta-readers mentioned a flaw in my own work: ending on a question (in that I do it too often, in her opinion). I’ll agree with her on that, but I like the technicque.

  • Thank you, Faith. In the contemporary UFs I’ve written (none of which have yet seen light of day, so take this with a grain of salt…) I have relied on the snark-beat as well. It does work well in the genre, and particularly, it seems, in first person. And yeah, I like slightly longer chapters, too.

    Ken, thanks for the comment. As a reader I find that I don’t like to put a book down mid-chapter: I find it unsettling visually, and I don’t like having to hunt for the exact spot where I left off reading. I like to stop at the end of a chapter or at least at an obvious chapter break. And so when I write, I write to my own reading tastes, if that makes sense. I write for readers who read the way I do. That might not be smart, but it’s what I do. Glad you like the bridges idea.

    Hep, glad you found the post interesting. Specifying how much time has passed can be clunky in those new chapters. Sometimes you just have to find a hundred ways to say something like “For the next several days . . .” Or “By the time they _____ed [reached the shore? Ate all the pastries? Were sober?] X number of days had passed…” I definitely agree with your point about too many cliff-hangers. In fact, I’d say that any one of the approaches I discuss, or for that matter any approach that I didn’t mention, can be overdone. The key is to mix them up. Use a few beats, a few cliff-hangers, a few time warps and whatever else to give your reader some variety. That will keep the narrative moving AND keep the story fresh.

    Stephen, yes. As I said to Hep, variety is key.

  • Laura, we must have commented at the same time. Ending with a question (either spoken or internal) can be very effective. But like any of these, it can get tiresome if overused. And I also agree that transitions for the sake of having a transition makes little sense. But chapters can only be so long, and in a book of only 100,000 words, we need to keep things moving along.

  • This is very informative – thank you, David! It also has me worried. My chapter endings tend to be the POV shift type, but they don’t involve cliffhangers. I have one I can think of that really does:

    Before he finished speaking, Mal had scaled the schoolyard fence and thrown a leg across the top bar. She dropped to the ground, landing on her toes and popping back up. “Quick. Before Mrs. Padowski sees.”
    He laughed again, as if she’d warned him about the Easter Bunny and slung his helmet at her. “Hop on kiddo. You got a lot to learn.”
    “Where are we going?” she shouted, wrapping her arms around him.
    The engine roared. “Where the monsters are.”
    Harvey [Mal’s mother] slotted a plate into the dish rack and attacked the next one. Behind her Ivor limped into the kitchen. He hung his cane on the edge of the sink and picked up a drying rag. When they’d emptied the sink of dishes together, he rubbed her back with his gnarled hands as she leaned on the sink and sobbed.
    “It’s hard, I know,” he said.

    Mal, the teenage daughter, is running off on a motorcycle with a man who might be a monster himself as her mother, the MC, is dealing with the news that her father in law is dying. So, there’s the worry that Mal might be in serious danger and, I hope, the desire to slap her for making her mother’s life harder.

    However, most of my transitions from chapter to chapter involve completing one character’s mini-arc/crisis and moving on to the next character’s in progress or just beginning crisis, all of it hopefully moving forward to the final concluding crisis. After reading this post I wonder if that way of doing things is reducing tension too much. They look more like this:

    “Fuck ‘em,” Psycho said. “I fight better alone.” He turned and walked away, boots crunching on broken peanut shells. Carl dumped a few bills on the bar and beckoned at Lars. The frost demons would be out soon.

    Chapter 10
    Harvey sat rigidly upright in the hard plastic chairs outside the principal’s office, her purse clutched on her lap. The nausea and dizziness left from the berserk still rippled through her, but at least she was holding her breakfast down. A heavy layer of concealer and powder dimmed the bruises, even if it didn’t hide them. She wore her mother’s pearl earrings, the ones she thought of as respectable. If she ever saw her mother’s ghost she’d apologize for all the times Mom had gone through this with her. Beside her, Mal sat slumped and sulking in her father’s letterman jacket.

    There’s a bit of a cliffhanger in that, but not much. Hmm – I’m going to have to work on this.

  • Sarah, this is one of those “No-right-way-to-do-this” issues. Just because you don’t tend to use cliff-hanger chapter endings doesn’t mean that you’re doing anything wrong. the chapter transitions you give us hear are very good; they leave characters in danger, or at least heading off toward danger, and then shift to another POV that I’m sure will also capture your readers’ imaginations. I think they look fine. Really. These are very good and very effective uses of the shift in POV. Don’t start second-guessing yourself because of this post.

  • David – great post, and some terrific examples, too!

    I tend to approach the length of chapters in the same manner I tackled short stories – they are as long (or as short) as they need to be. Although my chapters tend to average about 3000 words (12 pages), I have some that are under 1500 and some over 4500. Length depends on what is happening, and where a breather is needed.

    I never seem to have a problem with where or how to end a chapter, but sheesh, sometimes starting the next one is killer. I know what I want for that chapter, but I often seem to struggle to find the right place/right words to start. Doesn’t matter what kind of break it is, either, finding the right place to start can be a pain in the BIC. 😉

    Pea – one of the ways I’ve tackled long time shifts is to casually work the passage of time into the narrative. Try something like, “She watched her worn travel bag ride the carousel toward her. It was easy to spot, although the bright green ribbon she’d tied on the handle three years earlier was now faded to just plain ugly and only resembled a ribbon in the shadows of her memory. The bag had been new, then, too.” Using David’s example of a bridge transition, you could add a bit where she ties that ribbon on her brand-spanking new luggage. Just my two-cents worth.

  • Razziecat

    Late to the party (my intarwebs wuz down! 🙂 I like the beat, myself, and I tend to use it a lot when changing POV or when something significant happens but there is a logical reason for a pause in the action. I have trouble figuring out the best place to end a chapter, so this post can probably help with that. Glad to hear that the beat is being used more, because I’m comfortable with that. I use the “time warp” too, and have been training myself to use it a little more rather than getting caught up in mundane details, while still allowing for continuity–it’s a balancing act.

  • Lyn, thank you. I think that the “chapters should be as long as the story warrants” approach is absolutely the right one. Once I establish a chapter length for a particular novel, I do try to make all the chapters conform, in a rough sense. But that means basically the chapter should be, say 3,500 words, give or take a thousand on either side, so that’s a pretty big range. I think your suggestion to Emily (Pea) is a terrific one. Thanks for that.

    Razz, glad to see that the internet tubes are working for you again. Finding that balance between showing some of the mundane stuff — basically to keep things realistic — and keeping things moving along can be tough. Yes, the “time warp” helps with that, but of course it’s no panacea. Thanks for the comment.

  • TwilightHero

    Thanks for the advice, David 🙂 Guess I should have been clearer; I rarely use third-person omniscient sections – there are a grand total of two in my WIP – and then make sure to keep them short, less than 200 words. For example…

    Neither of them saw the dark-clad figure, hooded and cloaked, who rode slowly out of the forest a little way along the western fork on a stallion only slightly darker than its rider, the horse completely black but for a patch of white on its forehead. The woman watched both before walking the stallion to the middle of the road. Slowly, she began to follow the quieter of the two, the young man with black hair and blue eyes. After a moment, she reached out with the hand not holding the reins and stroked the horse’s mane deliberately. The stallion whickered softly. With no farmhands or laborers in the fields at this time of day, there was no one to see what happened next, and even if there had been, not many would have believed what they had seen.
    But not even the rider noticed the second dark-cloaked figure standing within the shadows of the forest, taller and without a horse, who waited and watched for over a minute before moving off through the trees, following the first.

    This establishes two things: (1), that the rider the MC saw from afar is following him, which you could have guessed, and (2) that someone else is following her, which you couldn’t have. For the first paragraph, I liked the ‘looking over her shoulder’ vibe because I didn’t want to make her a full POV character before the MC met her. The second introduces the guy following her before shifting to his viewpoint in the next section. Cutting straight to his POV when you’ve never even seen him felt jarring.

    Do you think even this too much? If I might ask. As I said, I too prefer close third-person, and the vast majority of my WIP is written this way, but I’ve found a lack of a specific POV works well if used sparingly.

    If anyone else has an opinion on this, feel free to chime in 🙂

  • TH, this is one of those things that is largely a matter of choice. My personal opinion is that yes, this is too much. There is no point of view for this passage — it is offered to the reader as information that none of your characters has. It’s well written; I can see why you want to offer this information to your reader, since it will certainly up the tension in your book. But it is, in my personal opinion, an intrusion of the author’s voice upon the narrative. If there was a way to do this through the woman’s POV. She is following. She hears something behind her. Or does she? Is she imagining it? She’s not sure, so neither are we, but the tension is still there. THEN, done in that way, you’ve accomplished much the same thing through the close 3rd person you use for the rest of the book. Now others may well disagree with me, and I know that authors do this sort of thing quite a bit. I know that it used to be VERY common to find such passages in books. But as close 3rd (and first) person POV has come to dominate the market, this sort of passage has become far less common. Some editors may be fine with it. Others might tell you that you need to work this into the POV of one of your characters. Admittedly, I’m a stickler on this sort of thing. But I would say that the passage needs to be recast so that it is firmly in someone’s viewpoint. Again, I offer that as my personal opinion, and nothing more.

  • If I might chime in, I think David is right that omniscient 3rd person has become very rare and a lot of readers/editors are turned off by it. They feel it’s archaic. I actually like using it from time to time–and I think it is still used more commonly in middle grades fiction where the narrative voice has a different function–but I think mixing it in with a more limited view is risky at best. I’d avoid it. As usual, that’s just my 2 cents…

  • Lyn> Thanks for that… that’s pretty much what I do in the airport scene (though she doesn’t wait for the bags. She packs light, and who wants to spend the extra $50 in bag fees? 😉 ) The establishment of her repetitive activity–and the fact that the night three years ago is still on her mind:

    Mary shouldered her carry-on bag and strolled past the people waiting at baggage claim, out of the airport, and into early morning light. Almost three years to the day after the episode with Thomas in Los Angeles, quitting hadn’t worked out so well. “One more job, one more vision,” had been Father John’s suggestion. And that one more turned to two, to ten, to twenty. Scores of demons and their screaming, terrorized prey rolled through her memory. No matter how many she saved, the sound of Thomas’s office door slamming shut behind her never faded from her mind. The hellfire still burned in her fingertips and hissed in her ears. She was no closer to giving it up than she had been that day she left Thomas to burn.

  • I have to chime in with David and AJ. 3rd person omniscient is considered old-fashioned these days. It may trend back around again eventually – things do. But I think a brand new writer might want to steer clear of it. Until you’re established, it’s better to take fewer style risks.

  • Excellent post David! I use and love all of these transitions in my writing. Your examples were wonderful. The beat and the time warp are probably the ones I use most often these days, but of course, a good cliff hanger here or there is always good. In my opinion, the last line is as important as the first line in every chapter–whatever transition you use, the goal is to keep people reading.
    I admit that the time warp was the last technique I learned. The first several drafts of my first book . . . yeah, bad. *shudder* The reader followed the main character through every waking moment. It took a very nice rejection letter that mentioned that I needed to work on transitions before I finally figured out I could skip time.

    Faith, I’m going to have to disagree that a 4 or 6 page chapter is lazy writing. Sometimes, sure, but I’d like to think there are exceptions. (of course, that could be me justifying) This is on my mind because I recently turned in final revisions on a book, and post revisions I now have a chapter that is only 1k words long (editor wanted an element removed so it was cut down from 3.5k). I’m not a fan of short chapters and I avoid them, but in this case, it was a necessity. The chapter before it ended on a huge note and having only a scene break would diminish some of that power. The following chapter is one of the longest in the book. And so that single scene chapter (which is actually a sequel/transition scene) stands all alone because everything around it would be negatively affected if I just tacked it on somewhere to avoid a short chapter. Of course, I write chapters as well as scenes very organically–when I feel a break, I break and transition to the next scene/chapter.

    TwilightHero, I’m going to have to agree with what others have said about 3rd person omniscient. Currently readers like to be close to the characters and the action. They want to live it–not have a wall between them and what is going on. That said, publishing is constantly in flux. Right now it is out, but the pendulum could swing back toward it. If you feel that is the best way to tell the story, tell the story you want to tell how you want to tell it–just be aware it could be an uphill battle to sell unless the market changes.

  • Samual Adams. I read that and immediately thought “mmmm beer.” That was all the transition I needed.
    Even in Australia we’ve heard of Boston Lager from the Samual Adams brewery 🙂

  • TwilightHero

    Thanks everyone! You’ve given me a lot to think about. David, I like what you did there, where she thinks there was something behind her. I’d go with it, it’s just that…I did exactly that in the previous section with the MC – the fact he noticed something is a semi-major plot point.

    But now that I think about it…the rider and the one following her have clashed before; she thinks she killed him…but isn’t sure. I could change this to her POV and have her musing on that, “He has to be dead” or something like it. And then in the next section you find that – of course – he’s not. Not as much tension, but it would help set things up for their second confrontation later on. It’ll do; back to work. Thanks again!

  • A.J. and Misty, thanks for chiming in on the omniscient voice issue. TH, so glad that we were able to help! That’s great, and it sounds like you have a solution in mind that will work. Best of luck with it.

    Kalayna, thanks for your input, too, and also for your insights on transitions.

    John, I’m hoping that my readers will be more focused on Samuel Adams the 18th century Boston politician and activist, and less on the Boston lager….

    Emily, I like that passage a lot.

  • Great post, David. And timely too. I’ve been polishing up my early chapters of Song of Fury, and really struggling with the length. For example, ch.1 is 5302 words, ch. 2 is 4970, and ch. 3 is 4752. I normally don’t get all bent out of shape over length, but my chapters usually fall in the 3-4k range.

    After reading this post, I think I have a natural break in chapter 1 that could help bring things down and still end with a punch. The story starts with my MC wrestling in a tourney and in his third match a forbidden song sends him into a rage.

    Here’s the transition from the first scene (3746 words) to a new POV (tied via magic to the 1st person protag):

    The others pressed in. I threw two away and smashed a third with my head. No time left. I grabbed for Zenoth’s throat. Fingers strained against skin, pushing, thrusting. Hard objects pounded my arms and body. Then Then warmth filled my fingers and my head felt like it would burst. Darkness crushed me.


    Atuned to the ebb and flow of Koha’s energy, Aura felt the siphon drawing as clearly as if it were sucking her own life force. Aura’s hackles rose. A protectorate alarm rang in her head, confirming what she already knew. Something, no someone, had breached the barrier and was stealing her world’s life energy.

    POVs aside, after your post, I think I might be able to get away with a chapter break after the fight. Then Chapter 2 would start with Aura and her arrival from the other world to watch the end of the fight. Even if I decided to delete Aura’s POV, the next scene starts with the MC coming to and realizing what he’s done.

    Thanks again. Regardless of what I do, it was well worth the read and provoked good analysis.


  • Thanks for the comment, Dave. Glad to know that you found the post useful. Finding those break points can be enormously helpful in maintaining the flow and momentum of our narratives. Hope the writing continues to go well!