Thursday, January 21, 2016

Scene VS Chapter: The Units of Pacing Fiction

Recently, I've been swapping chapters as part of a critique group and, along with that, offering feedback on a few pieces of writing. As these things often do, it got the wheels in my head turning, especially in regards to one of the hardest questions any writer has to face:

How long is a chapter?

Some of you might already be thinking. "Emily, that's silly. There's clearly no set length. Some chapters go on for 40+ pages but others I've seen wrap up in a paragraph or two. How can there be a standard measure for how long a chapter is?"

In answer to that, you're right, there isn't a standard. At least not a length based one. Courtesy of Jerry Spinelli's Hokey Pokey, I can think of one book that had a completely effective chapter that was only one word long. But even including these outliers, there are some commonalities. And with that in mind, I am gonna do my darnedest to articulate them, for those who are interested.

Why are Chapters SO HARD?

A lot of the people who read my blog are foremost readers,  so it might surprise some to know that chapter length is a super common problem for writers, especially when starting out. By the time you're writing a novel, you've usually got an idea of where a paragraph ends or how long a sentence should be, but what about things that are larger than that? Or at least, usually larger than that. (Think again of Hokey Pokey)

This was also one of the hardest things for my professors in my Masters program to describe to me. We talked a lot about feeling where there was a natural break in the story, but not everyone has that preternatural feel for pacing. Some people feel the rhythm of paragraphs, or descriptions, but not the ebb and flow of a chapter. The fact that the length varies so much can make them seem especially arbitrary and confusing, and with little advice other than to feel the break, I can see why my classmates struggled.

Being somewhat lucky on this count, I did feel chapters. My writing has many weaknesses, but one thing I was consistently told was that I paced my stories well. On a larger, book level, chapters are the unit of your book's pace. You want, roughly speaking, for your book to read:

In Chapter One, THIS happens, and then that makes it so that in Chapter Two, THIS happens, and that totally forces Chapter Three to be about THIS!!!

A book can't showcase everything, so chapters are the dots on a connect-the-dots picture. They're the points that are enough for you to understand the story - to make the leap from one place to the next.

But enough metaphor. This is practically as bad as telling someone to feel the break, if not worse. (FEEL the dot, my child!)

Why I wanted to write about this is because I think I do know a concrete way of pointing to where (usually) a chapter begins and ends. I've seen people hint at this before, but since I can't think of another article to point someone to in order to back me up, this is largely my own thoughts. Of course, others have probably taken credit for similar ideas, but this is very much the Gospel According to Emily when it comes to writing. Take it as such, and hopefully, enjoy!

I'm going to start by talking about some parts-of-writing that are frequently discussed and agreed upon: Sentences and Paragraphs.

A Sentence is...

A single thought.

This is something frequently repeated by high school teachers and university professors the world over. Just because you CAN write a compound sentence doesn't mean you SHOULD. For example...

"Alison hated waiting for the bus in the rain and her father had a meeting at the bank that day." technically grammatically correct, but it's not a good sentence because those two things have nothing to do with each other. The pieces joined by the word "and" should be relevant to one another, like...

"Alison hated waiting for the bus in the rain and could already picture herself smelling like wet dog for the rest of the day."

I still find this sentence a bit wordy and it could be broken up further, but I think you get the idea. The sentence is essentially about one thing: Alison hates how the rain makes her smelly. Trying to include anything more than that is beyond the scope of a sentence.

A Paragraph is...

A single idea.

Every first year university student has to grapple with this at some point in their education, as they try to make their writing intelligible, and the same principle applies to writing. For example...

"Alison hated waiting for the bus in the rain and could already picture herself smelling like wet dog for the rest of the day. She hoped her dad's meeting at the bank would go well for him, but the alignment of the crystal moon was causing minotaurs to attack banks today, so she was worried. Alison hoped Johnny from fifth period English would like her sweater."

This is a hot mess of, once more, things that have nothing to do with each other. Dad's meeting with the bank (or minotaurs) deserves it's own paragraph, if not more. It's a separate idea. Consider instead something that links together all the little thoughts (sentences) into a single idea...

"Alison hated waiting for the bus in the rain and could already picture herself smelling like wet dog for the rest of the day. She cursed herself for wearing a wool sweater, but it seemed like a good idea when she got dressed in the morning. She liked the way it hugged her curves and hoped Johnny might notice during fifth period English. Water dripped down the back of her neck, soaking her spine. Now the sweater didn't so much hug her chest as suction to it."

Now it's about one idea! There's a girl in the rain and she cares what a boy thinks of her, but oops! Things haven't gone according to her plans to make him like her, all because of the rain. The rain causing Alison discomfort is the underlying idea of the whole paragraph. If she moved on to worrying why the bus was late, that would be another paragraph. If she moved on to worrying about her most recent conversation with Johnny that is, again, another paragraph.

In great news, this approach to sentences and paragraphs also works for scenes and chapters. In both cases, they are single serving units. But of what?

A Scene is...

A single moment at a single location.

The champions of scene are not so much fiction writers, as dramatists. Anyone who writes theatre can tell you that when you change location, you change scene, so the set can be switched up. Also, if significant time passes within your location, you dim the lights to black briefly so that everyone knows you've changed scene. "Alison at the bus stop, Thursday" is a different scene from "Alison at the bus stop, Friday" and that's a different scene from "Alison at school, Friday."

In fiction, a lot of these distinctions blend together, because we're expected to transition. We show our characters board the bus BEFORE we show them at school, so that the movement between scenes isn't jarring. This transitional stuff is typically referred to as "exposition" and every novel needs some, but preferably, includes more scenes than exposition. Striking the right balance between the two is one of the great mountains every novelist must climb, but I'm saving that topic for another day.

The truth is, scene often is not something we point to through formatting. Scene formatting exists in theatre and screenwriting, but not in novels. We have periods to end sentences and line breaks to end paragraphs and page breaks to end chapters. Scenes lurk beneath that, forming a key part of story structure, but not as a function of grammar.

I describe all of this because I want to make one thing very clear: A chapter is not a scene. The opening chapter of the Hunger Games takes the reader first to the woods with Katniss, then back home to wash up, then finally to the reaping. Those are three separate scenes.

But a chapter also isn't a collection of scenes. Some chapters are only one scene long and yes, some scenes are multiple chapters long. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the Shrieking Shack scene starts halfway through Chapter 17, spans the entirety of Chapter 18 and finally finishes at the end of Chapter 19. Throughout that section, various people come "on" and "off set" but the time and location never change. It's all continuous action.

So if there is no correlation between scene length/scene density and chapter length, WHAT IS A CHAPTER?????

A Chapter is...

A single plot event.

Only one pivotal, plot driving thing happens per chapter. Plenty of "actions" might be taken by the characters to drive the plot forward, but the chapter is about one event. One choice that really matters. One revelation that rocks the world. One key thing you need the reader to remember. One event.

I talk about The Hunger Games a lot, and defend it as a great book. The reason why isn't because it's poetic or deep (though I like the writing and the themes resonate with me) but because it is a master class in pacing. Consider the first several chapters of the book and the "events" they are about (spoilers, of course):

Chapter One: Prim's name is drawn at the Reaping.
Chapter Two: Peeta's name is drawn at the Reaping.
Chapter Three: Katniss says goodbye to her family and Gale.
Chapter Four: Katniss travels to the Capital.
Chapter Five: Katniss is in the tribute parade
Chapter Six: Katniss meets an avox she recognizes in the Capital
Chapter Seven: Katniss goes through training and shoots at the judges during her evaluation
Chapter Eight: Katniss scores a high rating from her evaluation
Chapter Nine: At the tribute interview, Peeta drops the bomb that he likes Katniss
Chapter Ten: Katniss and Peeta share a tender moment right before the Hunger Games begin...

Do you see how it goes? There's only one really important thing to glean from each chapter, and each of these things move the plot forward. On top of that, each chapter typically ends with something that hints towards the next major event of the next. If you want to be taught something about pacing and chapter rhythm, I am not kidding when I tell you to reread The Hunger Games.

You'll notice that some of those "events" are very self contained, like the tribute parade, but others are more nebulous, like "travelling on a train" and "sharing a tender moment," but they are separate events for Katniss. Peeta isn't even finished his interview when he professes his love for Katniss, but that's such a bombshell revelation, it's separated out as it's own event.

Think of an event like a newspaper headline, rather than an "occurrence," like a parade. Often in the newspaper, you'll see the same story covered from multiple angles, because they all are relevant to understanding the overall story. You could almost think of these like chapters. Consider these potential headlines and what type of chapters they might be hinting at in their news story:

NEW SAFETY POLICY COULD IMPACT FARMERS ( the "sizing up the situation" event chapter, like the one we get when Katniss is on the train)
MODEL BETTY McPRETTY REVEALS ACTOR JOHNNY McHANDSOME AS BABY DADDY (revelation event chapter, like when the names are drawn at the Reaping or Peeta drops his truth bomb)
OLYMPIC GAMES COMMENCE IN VANCOUVER (actual "event" event chapter, like the tribute parade)
MOUNT VESUVIUS EXPLODES AGAIN (dramatic, plot event chapter, like Katniss shooting at the judges)

All of these things are "news" events and all get their own headlines in order to catch attention. A chapter works the same way, highlighting the most important events you need your reader to remember. Once you've moved on to a new, critically important thing, move on to another chapter.

The trick of implementing all of this is, of course, figuring out what your events are. What are the major things you can't have your reader missing out on? For everything they MUST know, give it it's own chapter. But don't cheat either. Remember that it's not enough to say "but they MUST know Alison's hair color!"  Chapter events need to advance the plot. That's largely what makes them events. Some might be more low-key, like the time Katniss spends with everyone on the train, but it's still essential for conveying her from one world to the next.

Scene VS Chapter

Let's consider the story of Alison and the bus stop. If we were organizing her story by scene, it might go a little like this...

  1. Alison waits for the bus
  2. Alison rides the bus to school but it is attacked by minotaurs but then her bus is saved by the Moste Handsome Boy with Eyes of Fire, who then disappears
  3. Alison and her busmates are sent to the school guidance counsellor to talk about the minotaur attack
  4. At lunch, Alison sees the Moste Handsome Boy with Eyes of Fire, but when she confronts him, he doesn't know who she is
This might look like an okay organization to the story, but would it actually break down into a smooth chapter guideline? I don't really think so. Chapter 1, Alison at the bus, would feel ridiculous separated out on it's own, but perhaps less obviously, Chapter 3 would also be a bit thin. The school guidance counsellor might prove an important character later on but there are more important things going on in this story than just a counselling session. Things that are getting a bit squished in Scene 2.

So what would this look like organized as plot events? I think it would go...

  1. On the bus ride to school, Alison is attacked by minotaurs!
  2. She is saved by the mysterious, Moste Handsome Boy with Eyes of Fire
  3. Alison discovers that the Moste Handsome Boy with Eyes of Fire attends her school!
  4. She confronts him, but he doesn't know who she is...
So what's changed? First off, Chapter 1 transitions into Scene 2 for the shocking minotaur attack. Then Chapter 2 concludes the confrontation, with the focus framed around the rescue by the Moste Handsome Boy with Eyes of Fire. Chapter 3 would pick up in the same place as Scene 3, but instead of focusing on the counselling, it builds towards another revelation. It also gives you an idea of what that counselling session might be ABOUT. Alison's guidance counsellor could be repeating that minotaurs aren't real to her, which she almost believes... until she sees Moste Handsome Boy with Eyes of Fire. Once again, we would be partly through scene 4 before the end of Chapter 3. That allows Chapter 4 to be about the confrontation and Alison's paranoia that Nothing Is What It Seems.

One last note - you'll notice that each chapter tends to end right as the main "event" occurs. This is not an accident. Chapters should read like a mini story in and of themselves. They have a beginning that sets up the ending, and that ending is where the impact goes. This both makes them satisfying, single servings of your book and gives the story a "page turning" quality. How can you not read Chapter 4 after you've just discovered Moste Handsome Boy with Eyes of Fire is RIGHT HERE at her school????

Of course, this story isn't real. Yet. But you can do this with a real story too. Sitting down and separating out your plot events from your scenes will help you sculpt your story into a more complete narrative, one where each thing really does build towards the next.

So go find your events. Get them in order like dots on a page, and you might just find you can connect them to build a whole picture.

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