Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Brief note on Breaking chapters

Something I'd like to share about pacing and chapter breaks learned the hard way.

There are three ways I use to pass time in a story. There's in-prose passage when you say something like "some time later" or "After a while". These work best when the action is continuing throughout and is intended to flow unimpeded from one bit of time to another. Like say your characters enter a maze. Instead of describing every turn in detail you can say 'They continued through the maze making educated guesses and left turns for several hours before finding the dreaded minotaur." This passes several hours of "prose time" spent on the same small action. Nothing significant happened within the aside and the reader doesn't feel rushed.

The second option is what I call the "scene break". It's a change in time or place usually indicated by asterisks, dotted or solid lines, tiny graphics or my favorite - the ' ~*~ '

Scene Break transitions take place at the close of something. When it comes up whatever happened in the preceding passage is over and no longer of concern. Going back to the maze idea, I'd use a scene break when the maze goers stop their random turns to sleep for the night, instead of explaining in long boring detail the efforts of setting up camp and fixing dinner, I'd employ a scene break and resume with "In the morning they started searching again." This gives the reader a significant stutter in time and implies that things actually occured while they were gone. To put it in more modern terms, it's like the commercial break in a tv show. We don't care about the commercials but we know they're there. The show will pick up at a more convenient time when there is something important going on. In that vein I usually conclude scenes with a wrapping up line, bringing the reader to an even halt before the break.

Scene breaks are often followed by a change in location or cast, like when you switch from the A story characters to the B story characters. When used this way the break implies time or distance between the two events. If the hero and the villain were making camp on either side of a forest, I'd employ a scene break to transition between them. If they were camping within earshot, I'd use prose instead, giving the reader a first-hand impression how close the two camps actually were to each other. These extra scenes usually come at the beginning or end of a chapter, at least in Threadcaster. There's enough focus on Cat and her party that any deviation from that story feels like a derailment. Scene injections can take place in the middle of chapters, but always be aware of pacing; whether it's a line of asterisks or twenty paragraphs, applying a scene break severs the connection between the reader and the events they were just reading about.

The final (and title) form of time jumping is Chapter Breaks. This is the most severe time jump of them all. If you want to pass hours, days, or even years the chapter break will do it. People usually see chapters as a good place to put the book down for a while, it's dangerous to bridge important action from one chapter to another unless you're really good at writing cliffhangers. Some authors are almost devilishly good at making you want to jump straight into their next chapter, especially near climaxes when everything is happening at once. In threadcaster I use chapters as containing nodes chronicling each stage of our quest into identifiable bits. Most end with a hint of where the party will be going next and a reflection of where they just left. Never end a chapter lightly and be careful of where you cut things short. Sometimes a chapter break happens naturally, you have to obey the pacing of the story and listen to your reader voice as you go along.

Right now I'm looking at an eight page chapter. I like my chapters being twelve, but I've tried prosing the time away and scene breaking the time away and neither of those had the impact they needed. This scene needs a chapter break and so I shall do it, letting the meaning of the previous scene sink in with a reader who needs a chance to take a breath and turn a page.

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