Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 6: Dramatic Breaks

What are dramatic breaks? We open this episode with Howard very genuinely playing Doctor Watson to Brandon’s Holmes, which is amusing because as it turns out, Howard uses dramatic breaks every day. Simply put they are the points in the narrative, typically at the end of a chapter, where we cut to another scene. Sometimes we are shifting perspective, sometimes we are advancing the clock, and sometimes we’re merely pausing to take a breath.

What are we looking for in a dramatic break? How do we identify the right place to cut away from one group of characters and focus on others? How do we avoid doing it the same way every time?

And so we discuss those stopping points and the starting points that follow them. We cover the flow of time and the flow of story. We talk about delivering satisfying installments. We even hang from a cliff or two.


This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery by Tracy & Curtis Hickman, illustrated by Howard Tayler. Autograph editions are now on pre-order!

Writing Prompt: Write a story in which Howard hates elephants and dramatically breaks one.


32 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 6: Dramatic Breaks”

  1. Query: If the readers feel that they have learned something about the character, and the setting, and part of the conflict…is it okay to have short chapters? I think that the satisfaction of the reader trumps accepted parameters for chapter length, but what is considered standard for (epic) fantasy?

  2. Thanks for the podcasts!

    And a great timing: I was just wondering about this in my short story.

    I know it’s different than novels and I can’t quite use ‘chapter breaks.’

    So far, my usage is more akin to ‘sandwich break.’ The passages continue but I hope the readers get a sense of progress… like milestone markings.

  3. What do you guys think of uneven chapters, as in one chapter is 3 pages long, when the next one is 20?

  4. Jen:
    There is no hard and fast rule for chapter length, but be wary of very short chapters in an epic fantasy; more than likely it will give the book a very breathless, non-epic feel. That said…

    …varying chapter length is perfectly acceptable, and a great way to shake things up and keep the story feeling fresh.

  5. While Brandon may not do cliffhangers, Alcatraz seems to be addicted to them. Maybe someone should send him this podcast :) Looking forward to Alcatraz #3!

  6. Interesting what you just said about short chapters, Dan. I just finished Warbreaker and it is definitely epic fantasy and there were many short(er) chapters. I definitely noticed it, but it didn’t bother me. It seemed to keep the pace really urgent.

  7. Great topic! Loved the advice. I’d be curious to see an example of Howard’s last suggestion on how to use an unusual word in consecutive scenes to provide continuity. I have trouble with reusing words because whenever I use the same word twice, for descriptions for example, someone always comments something like “you already used that word.” So it always seems to stand out in a negative way rather than a positive.

  8. Howard gave a cry of rage as he tore into the elephant’s backside. Clenching his teeth, he pulled until his rippling muscles pulsed against his skin. He heard a loud snap, and he knew the beast’s spine had been severed. A few more seconds and the elephant was torn in half. Howard smiled–not because he broke the elephant, but because he broke the elephant…dramatically.

    Great podcast.

  9. Dramatically breaking an elephant is easiest if you’re wearing power armor in a low-gravity environment. Just ask Nick.

  10. I’ve realized listening to you guys that I do a mixture of what you do. I write a 1700-2000 word ‘chapter’ and post it to a website for other people to read and comment on and enjoy for free. Only now am I going back and editing the first volume of 50 chapters, because I plan on self-publishing it.

    I do end some of my chapters with cliffhangers and torture my readers, but it’s fun, and they know I’ll be coming back with some answers. And then I end the next chapter on a happier note. I think cliffhangers happen and they’re part of life. They get our hearts racing and make us invest a little more of our time and heart in the book.

  11. Boy, I loved this one. Lots of food for thought. It’s one of the great things about this business–no matter how much you learn, there always seems to be more.

  12. That was a great episode, but then they all are. This one was very helpful to me, however, to what I’m doing right now. I’m just about to edit my first novel, going over the manuscript scene by scene right now, and making sure the overall story works. I had the idea of ending each chapter or scene with lots of tension, but Brandon’s comment on leaving a scene with a sense of progress has cleared things up for me. I’m not writing a thriller, but an adventure story, so this makes so much more sense for me, though I know tension is always good to have wherever possible. Thanks Guys! Love the podcast, I listen back through them and take notes, because you guys drop lots of little gems of wisdom in your podcast. Keep up the good work!

  13. Did I hear Brandon say he doesn’t use cliffhangers?
    The Mistborn trilogy and Elantris were full of them. He purposefully switches characters right when I’m most interested in what they are doing, I call that cliffhangers.

    Character A just discovered something vital, time to switch to Character B to let them get in trouble but we wont see what exactly happens to them quite yet because it’s time to see what Character C is up to.

  14. Darkeyedblues,

    I was surprised to hear Brandon say that myself. But I took it for granted. Can you give a few specific instances?

  15. As Jin Kang suggests, it might be worthwhile to ask Brandon how he defines cliffhangers. For example, if he restricts it to the threat of physical harm, then a chapter that ends with “I am your father, Duke” isn’t a cliffhanger. Or “I don’t want to rule the kingdom?”

  16. Great episode.

    As I’ve been inspired to start writing at least something every day again, I took the writing prompt.

    It’s on my LJ and has been left public for now: http://vi-hart.livejournal.com/24116.html

    As for cliffhanger discussion, I think there’s a difference between a cliffhanger and a revelation. “I am your father” is a revelation. Cliffhangers are more about action than information.

  17. But what about cliffhangers like “I’ve got a terrible, terrible secret, but I will tell it to you…in the next chapter.” That does not necessarily imply physical harm, but it is a cliffhanger.

  18. Right. Point being that we seem to have cliffhangers, revelations, hints of revelations, and various other “tense lack of resolutions.” Now, our friend Brandon indicated that he thinks he doesn’t use cliffhangers. Two questions — what does he consider a cliffhanger, and what does he use instead?

    Let’s see — I have Mistborn here.
    prologue — Mennis faced with spending nights in the mist.
    Chapter 1 — Vin pushes Laird
    chapter 2 — Kelsier yanks an Inquisitor.
    Chapter 3 — Kelsier tells Vin she’s got the power
    Chapter 4 — Kelsier admits his grand plan
    chapter 5 — Kelsier heads into the night
    chapter 6 — Vin eavesdrops
    chapter 7 — Vin Steelpushes for the first time — up a wall? A reverse cliffhanger?
    Just a fast scan, but most of these I would call cliffhangers — we want to know the outcome? Not physical threats (except maybe Chapter 2, where Kelsier is teasing an Inquisitor), but definitely what happens next territory?

    So I’m not sure what Brandon means.

  19. tsk, tsk, Brandon not being clear, he should know better. Perhaps he is still in Mistborn 3 mode. A LOT of information and no direct answers unless you figure it out on your own, which you do, then in the end you think- “Oh I know what will happen!…Oh, maybe not.”

    Maybe Brandon uses cliffhangers but satisfying ones. You can consider many of the short chapters in book 3 cliffhangers in a way. They most certainly leave you wondering what will happen, but they leave you feeling satisfied too, like “Wow that was amazing” or (my favorite) “I can SO see that!”

    Oh scary! I just found out that my Open Office writer is at the bottom of my Program list!
    When was the last time I used it? AHHH!

  20. Almost any chapter about Spook in Hero Of Ages ends with a cliffhanger.

    I’m starting to think Brandon doesn’t think of them as cliffhangers, but just as “out early.” However, because we don’t hear back about the character/situation for several chapters, they at least feel like cliffhangers.

  21. I hear what people are saying about Hero of Ages, but it seems to me that no matter when in that book he had chosen to pause for a chapter break we would have felt some tension, it’s a pretty action-filled trilogy. I’d love to hear more from the guys on this, but it seems to me that by ‘cliffhanger’ they were speaking more of the “he opened the door and the person he least expected stood before him” [cut!], or “she lunged at him with the knife” [cut!] standard.

    Pivotal action point. Implied possible consequence that radically changes everything. Cut scene.

    Maybe I’m wrong.

  22. @Eliyanna: Yes, those are the cliffhangers of which we speak.

    But yes, you can argue that Brandon uses cliffhangers of lesser “hang” all the time. Which is why when he wants to use a real cliffhanger it has to be a doozy for it to register.

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