Photo ©chendongshan | Deposit Photos
The last month or so, I started what I initially called “Depth Curriculum.” It entailed identifying all the courses on Depth, not only the ones from Dean Wesley Smith (where the term originated) but also from Margie Lawson’s Academy.
In the batch, Author Voice looked like it might hit on Depth, and I started with it. The curriculum immediately turned in a different direction than Depth. I decided to take any courses that it referenced, which included the lecture Stages of a Fiction Writer, Pacing, and now Cliffhangers.
About halfway through the Author Voice class, it asked who my favorite writers were in terms of author voice. Was I writing like them, using similar structures? The structures could be sentence length, word choices, style of chapters, etc.
Answering that question took me on a different path because I was doing some but not all of it.
The first was vocabulary. New writers try to sound literary or knowledgeable, so they pack sentences with larger words because they sound important, not necessarily because it’s the right word. As a result, many writing resources recommend using a thesaurus as little as possible. Others have said to just put in what your subconscious came up with.
But, as a reader, I like occasionally looking up a word I haven’t seen before to see what it means. The authors I like don’t do a lot of it…might be once a chapter or every few chapters.
I started doing this with the second Dice book, Weekend with Superheroes. Just stopping on a word to look it up. Does it mean what I think it does? (in some cases, no.) Is it what I want in the context of the scene?
I’ve also used the word of the day to push myself a little out of my comfort zone. Not a lot. The word has to fit after all.
The second was a bigger change that I had to think about: scenes and chapters. These aren’t discussed a lot anywhere, at least in the context I was looking for. My earliest encounter with scenes was a published writer answering “How long is a scene?” with the assumption we would all magically grok the answer.
According to my Google-fu now, it means he didn’t know. I think it would have been better if he hadn’t answered. No advice is better than vague advice.
I’d often lose focus of where I was in the scene and write well past where it probably should have ended, weighing in at 3-5K.
Dean Wesley Smith pointed out that pulp writers, as well as the best-selling writers, tend to stick to around 1,500 words or so, 2,000 if the pacing needs to be slower (such as setting up the information needed). This was easy for me to test out: I typed scenes of best-selling writers and they did hit that range. It’s a comfortable range to read in one sitting.
So that was fine enough. But the definition of a chapter seemed a bit more squirrelly. DWS also says there’s no difference between a chapter and a scene.
Well…now I have to disagree.
Many writers these days tend to do one scene, one chapter. It’s a style probably popularized by James Patterson, though James D. McDonald did it earlier.
It can make a chapter feel like it’s moving at a fast pace.
It can also make a chapter feel superficial.
One writer I read had published a book with over 250 chapters. Many were so short that the publisher started a new chapter on the same page—in a paperback.
As a reader, I was frustrated with the chapters. I’d just start getting engaged in the story and bang! Chapter stopped. Over and over again. I didn’t get much past the first ten chapters (about 15 pages!).
All the writers that I like to read have multiple scenes in most chapters. I think it probably appeals to my intellection to be able to dive into a chapter for longer.
So I tried to research chapters vs. scenes. Not a lot out there.
Here’s my thinking on chapters vs. scenes.
Rule Number 1: Never confuse the reader.
There are lots of ways that could happen. Where a chapter breaks isn’t always intuitive, and it’s hard to see problems because we know the story.
The scenes themselves have to feel like they fit together logically. The endings of each scene and the beginning of the new scene would be impacted by this, as I discovered when I started thinking about what would change if I added multiple scenes in a chapter.
That was because I pictured the reader reading through all the scenes in the chapter, then stopping. I had to go back through and tie them together a little better than I did.
If the next scene changes to a different character’s POV, that’s better off as a new chapter. If you’re changing from first to third person, definitely switch chapters and hang a lantern on it.
A big time shift might signal the need for a new chapter, as well as a significant location shift.
And any action scene should have its own chapter, even if it’s much shorter. Though the writers I like have multiple scenes per chapter, when there was an action scene, it got the starring role, as it should.
What’s your view on chapters? Do you like one scene per chapter or do you want something more?
Something more, I thin k, though some chapters can be short. I’m afraid my chapters usually run long, but I sometimes separate scenes*****
Your “Rule Number 1: Never confuse the reader.” could just as easily be the foundational rule – even possibly more foundational than Sanderson’s “Always err on the side of awesome.”
I once said that in a certain writers’ chat room, and immediately got back, “But in a mystery you want to confuse the reader!” Um, no.
In a mystery, you want to mislead or misdirect the reader, not confuse the reader. Confusion leads to the reader saying, “WTF?!” and putting the book down.
More on topic (grin) – I honestly think the one scene per chapter trend (fad?) started because of the difficulty of chapter breaks. Chapters should end on a cliffhanger, right? Scenes should, too, right? So why not combine the two and lose the stress of picking which scene should *also* be a chapter break?
There might be some guidelines – like break a chapter after every major POV character has had a scene. So, if you have to major POV characters, you break the chapter every two scenes.
Yes, that’s mechanical, but maybe a mechanical guideline will help until you start to “feel” which scenes are stronger than others and therefore should also be chapter-enders.
That part about scene breaks and cliffhangers sounds like it might be part of the bigger problem of a lack of much advice beyond the beginner level.
It sounds like everyone is interpreting cliffhanger as Something Terrible Must Happen. That would be exhausting to write for every single scene. If I’d followed that advice in the old days, my structure would be all screwed up because I’d fixate on big impact at the end, not on the actual writing of the scene.
Right. All the end of a scene (or chapter) needs to do is entice the reader to, well, keep reading, and sometimes, the scene does that by what happens within the scene rather than (only) the ending of the scene.