Writing Excuses 12.15: Pacing with Chapters
Key points: Chapters are not short stories! Intermissions, and chapter breaks, let you frame a scene. Chapter breaks are like the Vs on the ground in racing games, they zip you forward into the next chapter, boosting momentum. Changing points of view, passage of time, all these may need a break. Chapter breaks are good for pacing. Breaks when we have unfinished arcs or business pull you forward. If you don’t want the reader to put your book down, use lead ins or hooks to pull them forward. But in big books, you may want to let the reader take a break. Give them a break, but also give them a reason to come back. Chapter breaks can reset the scene, move to another point of view, frame a scene. Sometimes you want thriller pacing, with mini-cliffhangers pulling readers forward and short chapters. Sometimes you don’t. Chapters are about time passing, while scenes are emotional arcs. In big books, chapters end with something accomplished or discovered. In shorter books, chapters may end with smaller turning points or steps. Scenes are in a place, accomplishing a goal. A time, a place, a point of view, those define a scene. Chapters are for pacing. Also for emphasis — the last thing in a chapter gets attention!
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 15.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Creating Scenes and Chapters.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Brandon] All right. Scenes and chapters. This is actually a question I get a lot from students or people coming through my line is “How do you know what makes a chapter?” As if there is like some little secret we authors share with each other that we all know, but you have to be in the club to know.
[Mary] So, this was one of the places, that when I was moving from short stories to novels, that my short story roots showed the most, is that I felt like every chapter… I was treating the chapters like individual little short stories, and that they needed to have a beginning, middle, and an end. What that meant was that I would get to the end of the scene, the end of the chapter, and I would have this resolution, and it meant that it was very, very easy to put the book down. It actually made the novel read slow. What I realized was that chapters exist to control pacing. I really started to think about this when people started… When I was like… People would talk about the three act structure in novels, and I would get frustrated because, in theater, the three act structure exists literally to allow you to change scenery. But, I also realized that one of the things that that intermission does, and what a chapter can do, is that it can allow you to frame the scene, which helps with how the reader is perceiving the things that go there… That are occurring in it.
[Brandon] That perception’s important. It’s kind of like you’ve got these… Okay, this is going to be a weird metaphor. Okay? Very weird metaphor. But in videogame racing games, you will have these little V’s on the ground, right? That you get your car over and it zips you forward. Right? What the chapter can do, instead of giving you one big boost and then it’s all the way through, you have these periodic things, where it’s like you build the pacing right, you get to the end of the chapter, you’re like, “Do I want to step on the little V’s and zip myself forward?” And you do, and there’s a natural momentum to I am now starting something new, I’m in there, and they kind of just zipped through the beginning of that chapter. And sometimes, lose some momentum by the end, and then the next one zips them through.
[Wesley] For me, I don’t have any rules about chapters, usually. It’s like, if it feels right, that’s when I do it. If I’m changing points of view or if I need a little block of time between what’s happening right now and what’s about to happen next. So I don’t want to have to describe like, “Okay, now they’re in a car. Going down a road.”
[Brandon] It can make time pass.
[Wesley] Yeah, it can make time pass.
[Mary Anne] So, I’m in a transition period between being a short story writer and a novelist. I have not yet published a novel. I’ve written three now. I feel like I’ve learned things with each one I’ve written, but I’m not quite there yet. I have some of the same issues that Mary was talking about in that… I’ve got two books of linked short stories. Bodies in Motion and The Stars Change, both of which I think had resolutions at the end of every piece. Stars Change starts… By like the third or fourth story in, I was starting to let go of that. I wish I’d kind of gone back and rewritten the opening stories to do that more. So I think that’s just a general thing for short story writers to be aware of when they’re moving into that transition to… If they’re moving into novels. What I’ve been doing, and I’m trying not just to write a novel, but I’m trying to write sort of an epic space opera kind of thing. I feel like I’m jumping in the deep end, because I’m like… I’m trying to plot out a five book series.
[Mary Anne] Never having published a novel. But what I’ve been doing to help me, is going back and rereading things. I reread the Godfather which was actually really helpful to think about what is it. I mean, his prose is not brilliant, right? It’s very worksmanlike. But the book is incredibly compelling. He gives the characters enough flash. You know these people very quickly, and their problems are compelling, and he drags you forward. Similarly, I just started rereading the opening of Game of Thrones. In the first book… This is a spoiler for the opening of Game of Thrones, which I can’t imagine anyone cares about at this point. But he has this boy and this older… This young man who you kind of love to hate kind of guy, and the young man gets threatened by a White Walker guy, gets killed. In any other writer’s hands, this chapter would have ended, this prologue chapter would have ended with the boy running home to warn people. But because it’s George, he actually ends it with the boy being about to do that and then getting killed by the White Walker. It’s just incredibly gripping. You’re like, “I can’t believe he did that.” You have to turn the page.
[Brandon] This is one of George’s great strengths. I would say, for the… His greatest strengths are the ability to characterize very quickly and his ability to control the speed of his story with the pacing. Particularly with chapters.
[Mary] One of the things that he’s doing there is controlling it by audience expectations. This is one of the things that I’ve talked about in previous episodes where I’m talking about the MICE quotient, although I’ve started calling it the MACE quotient for reasons. Anyway, the point being that if you bring an arc to a close, and the reader is expecting, “Ah, now we’ve ended that, so there must be an ending to this chapter, to this scene,” but you introduce the beginning of the next arc and then break… That expectation, that ah, but this is unfinished, this is unresolved…
[Wesley] What happens next?
[Mary] Can pull you forward into the next thing.
[Brandon] Now, I’ll say something controversial sometimes when I talk to writers about this, is that a lot of times writers are saying I try to write my chapters this way. Which I do in a lot of my books, meaning I don’t want you to put it down, I want some sort of lead in or hook, hopefully doing it well, not having a hook that is annoying… But leading into the next chapter. In my big epic fantasies, I often will make the end of a chapter a breather, where you can put the book down. Right? I give… I try to control where the reader will put the book down, because I know they’re going to. It’s a thousand pages long. You can’t read it in one sitting.
[Mary Anne] This is… You were talking about theater and moving the scenery. I heard… Tell me if this is true, that the reason intermission… The reason we have intermissions is because audience members have to pee. Like, it’s controlled by the human bladder.
[Mary] Yeah. Yeah. This is 100% true. Intermission… And this is actually a really good point, I think, and we forget it a lot. That storytelling, which is what we are doing, we are doing this on a written page, but storytelling began as an interactive thing. It began as a live experience. A lot of the things from theater serve very useful functions. Like the allowing people to pee. What you want to do is you want to give them that break, but you also want to give them a reason to come back. You want to give… And finding that balance. Let me… If I can indulge in…
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Mary] Let me describe the best use of intermission I’ve ever seen on stage. This was with the Macbeth that Patrick Stewart was in. The Banquo scene… So the thing about Shakespeare is that the act breaks are not encoded. He wrote it all as one act. Those are things that were added later. So the Banquo scene begins with the ghost of Banquo coming down on this freight elevator at the back of this banquet hall. He’s just drenched in blood. He walks out of the elevator, gets up on the table, and walks down to the end. None of the other guests see him, only Patrick Stewart. Patrick Stewart jumps up, stumbles, and cries out. Blackout. This is not where that scene normally ends. We go to intermission. We’re like, “Wow.” This has totally framed everything from that first thing. Like how… And it’s… It has stopped in the middle. When we come back, it begins again. The elevator comes down. This time there is no ghost on it. But we imagine the ghost walking forward, and the scene continues on. Another reason this is relevant to fiction is not because I’m saying you should write all of your scenes twice. It’s not that. It’s because that intermission controlled your sense of what was happening. It was there to raise a question for you, it was there to frame how you have viewed the first act, and it left a question that you wanted to come back and see the answer to that. This is one of the things that you can do with a chapter break, but also, in larger form, with part breaks, when you have a book that’s part one, part… Within a single book.
[Brandon] We’ll talk about that a little later. Let’s go ahead and break for the book of the week. Which is Jed and the Junkyard War by Steven Bohls, one of my students. I like to promote them when their books are coming out. This is a delightful middle grade book with excellent pacing. I’d say it’s one of the biggest strengths of the book is that and the world building. It’s about a kid who gets pulled into the junkyard, which is kind of a mythological place. He’s from our world, but there is this enormous junkyard through a portal that everyone who lives there gets their food by searching through the junkyard for cans and opening the cans. They build everything they have…
[Brandon] Out of the magically appearing junk that is just piled on top.
[Wesley] Oh, my.
[Brandon] There are creatures that live in the junk that is junk that’s come alive that chases them. There are giant… There are pirate ships. Basically, a pirate adventure with sailing ships across the sea of junk. It’s a delightful middle grade story. Very whimsical. Very tightly paced. I think you guys will really enjoy it. So, Jed and the Junkyard War. We’ll get Steven on the podcast eventually, I’m sure.
[Brandon] Wes, you were about to jump into something before I cut.
[Wesley] So, I was going to say that like there are many novels who work off of a thriller kind of pacing. So they will purposefully set up all their scenes in a way where the purpose of the chapter is to get you to read the next chapter.
[Wesley] That’s annoying to me.
[Brandon] I’ll be honest, it does. But they can do it… Some of them do it really well. Other ones just…
[Wesley] There are other novels where we utilize the structure of the chapter in order to reset the scene, move on to another point of view. So you’ll… What I’m trying to say is you don’t have to pull that urge…
[Wesley] For the reader to like, okay, I must give them some kind of mini-cliffhanger or something to push them forward. Sometimes, you just want to frame how the scene works because it best serves the story.
[Brandon] Although I would recommend studying some of these books. Because what a lot of them will do, it’s a very short chapter. They’re like three pages.
[Mary Anne] The Game of Thrones are not quite that short, but they’re pretty short.
[Brandon] Yeah, but he does the really short ones, too. The really quick pacing… Terry Pratchett does the same thing, although he doesn’t call them chapters.
[Mary] Yes. He does not have chapter breaks. Which is fascinating. Brent Weeks, in his new series… I find it really interesting, because each scene is its own chapter.
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah.
[Mary] So they’re really short.
[Brandon] They’re short and they’re very… It does have this kind of breakneck speed to it. I’d agree. When is a scene not a chapter? What is the difference between a scene and a chapter, then, if we’re pointing out all these people that are making each chapter a scene?
[Mary] Well, I do think that… So… Ah, that’s a really interesting question. So for me, they are both, to a certain degree, about controlling pacing. I feel like chapters are more in some ways about the sense of time passing, whether it’s the reader’s sense of time of how long have I been immersed in this story, whereas scenes, I think, are about the… Tend to be about an emotional…
[Mary] They do tend to have a little bit more completeness to them in some ways. So you can have a scene that stretches over multiple chapters. But that there is… There is a self-contained arc going on within a scene. Then you use the chapter to kind of break how long you feel like that scene is going on. If that… I’m not sure if I made any sense at all.
[Wesley] So, when would it make sense to break up one scene into multiple chapters, or just to keep it one big chapter?
[Mary] I think… I mean… Like, when I have done that, because I have broken a scene that was taking place over the course of… I’m trying to think of…
[Brandon] So I’ll jump in on this.
[Mary] I totally have examples, but I’m like, “Oh, that book isn’t out yet.”
[Brandon] I end a chapter almost always, in the big books, epic fantasy, with something major having been accomplished or discovered. That is an ending to me. We set out to do one little piece of this plot, and we have either failed or succeeded in accomplishing this. Something has been done. In my shorter books, I am breaking often times at a very different point. Because in my longer books, I want a chapter to feel like a… Boom. Like this is… You’ve read… The chapters in The Way of Kings are often seven or 8000 words long for a chapter. Whereas in the Steelheart books, a chapter is 1200 words to 1500 words. In that case, I am breaking at each step towards this larger goal. So we’ll have like five chapters make a scene. But every turning point or step along this scene… Where like there’s three guys we gotta beat. I’m facing the first one. That is end of chapter, when I’ve got the first one, but the second one is coming into punch me. Right? All right. Things like that, I will often break to keep that pacing going. I… They do different things for me.
[Mary Anne] I feel like you’re… I’m a little confused, honestly. You said five chapters make a scene. I tend to think of scenes as the smaller units within chapters…
[Brandon] See, that’s the thing. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t. So if the scene is we must get… I’ll use one from Steelheart. They’re… My notes are in this building, and we’re going to go get these notes. We arrive, and we find there are bad guys there. That’s actually three chapters, getting the notes back and beating the bad guys. Because sometimes we… I cut at points that are going to be those little zip marks that get you through. Da Vinci Code’s the same way. It cuts in the middle of scenes a lot.
[Mary Anne] So what are you defining as a scene, I guess is my question?
[Brandon] A scene, I’m thinking of as more of a traditional… A scene is we are in a place and accomplishing a goal.
[Mary] So he’s breaking scenes at the end of a time span.
[Brandon] Yeah, it’s time span or location, right?
[Wesley] Or point of view.
[Brandon] Like we enter a room, we have a conversation, we leave a room. That’s a scene. But there will often be three scenes in a Way of Kings’ chapter, whereas in a shorter book, that can often… That will be each a chapter, sometimes split the scene in two.
[Wesley] I mean, a chapter’s flexible. A chapter could be whatever you want it to be. I mean, when I have like large action scenes, sometimes they’ll go through three or four points of view, and then I will split up that one large scene by the points of view, so every chapter is a different point of view, because that’s… It kind of…
[Mary Anne] That’s really interesting to me.
[Wesley] Fits together a little bit better then, splitting them apart.
[Mary Anne] I want to look at your books. Like, that’s very different from… I think maybe I’ve been too trained by playwriting, right? And the sort of idea that you have a set of scenes within the larger acts. I think I thought of chapters kind of like those larger acts.
[Mary] Which is one of the things for me about… That was so revelatory about that production of Macbeth, was that they broke for intermission mid-scene. But that scene, that whole arc is still there, where you begin in one place and you end when you’re exiting that place. I was like, “Oh, you can break mid-scene.” But I am also coming from a theater background, and have that similar sense that it needs to be self-contained. But the thing that just went through my head… I was like, “Oh.” When you were talking about that sting, that bump. That one of the things that I have talked about a ton when I’m talking about writing sentences or paragraphs is listing, that we tend to notice the first thing and the last thing, and the stuff in the middle, we tend to gloss over. That one of the things that a scene break or a chapter break does for you is that it puts… It controls what comes at the end. That thing at the end is the thing that carries the most emphasis. Which is… We talked about it a little bit, like the framing… The… Into the Woods is a great example of this. If that intermission break, that chapter break so to speak, came at a different point, we would have a very different sense. But because it comes at the end of the first act, like, “Oh. Happy, happy.”
[Brandon] Everything’s happy. Yeah.
[Mary] That sense of happiness that you carry forward into the next one has now shaped everything that is coming after it.
[Mary Anne] That’s actually what I love about Hunger Games, is because I think she does the same thing with books. At the end of the first book, she gives you this sense of closure, we’ve triumphed, satisfaction, etc. You start book two and she’s immediately starting to subvert that. Then, by the end of book 3, you end the series and she’s like, “Yeah. Everything I told you at the end of book one was a lie.”
[Mary Anne] “This is the world we actually live in.”
[Wesley] In book 1 and in book 2, there’s a length of time that passes between it. It’s a lot more difficult to have a length of time passing in between scenes, unless you’re going to spend time researching that time period.
[Mary] One of the things, as well, is that when you… You can use it to do the jump cut, but when you come back in, you have to reset the scene. That takes time. So when I have a big passage of time, I’m much more likely to use a part break rather than a chapter break or a scene break.
[Brandon] I agree with that. I do that a lot in my books. The big parts, tying them all together.
[Brandon] Unfortunately, we are out of time on this episode, but, Mary Anne, you have some homework for us.
[Mary Anne] I do. I actually have two parts of homework. Part one is, I think the book that was most useful to me in thinking about scene and tension and interruption was Italo Calvino’s book If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, which is this short little book translated into English from the Italian, where he starts a story, he gets to a tense point, the chapter ends, you turn to the next chapter, he started a completely different story. But you get caught up in it, so you keep reading, you’re a little frustrated, you get to the end of the chapter, and then the third chapter, he’s done it again. He does this over and over and over again, for about 12 chapters, I think. It’s really useful to look at like reader frustration and satisfaction. So I just recommend reading that. The other thing is that when I was first reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it kept me up until four in the morning. I could not put the book down. It was the first book in probably a decade that had done that for me. I wanted to know why. So I sat down and I looked at it. It was actually what Mary Robinette was talking about earlier. What she does is she gives you this problem of Harry want the letters that are being delivered, and the problem keeps escalating, there are more and more and more letters. By the end of the chapter, we have… She’s solved that problem, you’ve delivered the letters and you know it’s an invitation to Hogwarts, but she’s already started the problem of they’re not going to let him go. That’s what takes you into chapter 2. She does that through the entire book. So my homework is to find a book that you love that you can’t put down, and look at what did the author do to put you in that position.
[Wesley] Let me add to that. Find a book that you hate, but you can’t stop reading.
[Brandon] Ooooooo! There are so many of these.
[Wesley] Figure out why, even though you hate the book, you just keep turning the pages to see what’s going on.
[Brandon] That’s a great addition. All right, guys. You… Are out of excuses, now go write.