Tag Archives: scene transitions

Dissecting the Scene: plot points #amwriting

Scenes are the Legos, the building blocks of the story. We all loved building things with our Legos, but readers are impatient. For that reason, no scene can be wasted, written just to entertain us, the writer. All of those scenes are background and world building, and should be saved in a separate file.

We want to ensure that each scene has a function. When I am writing the first or even the second draft, I can find myself at a loss as to what needs to happen next to advance the story.

I keep a list of plot points that could be explored and try to nudge my plot forward by exploring one of these actions:

  • Information
  • Confrontation
  • Reunion
  • Revelation
  • Negotiation
  • Decision
  • Capitulation
  • Catalyst
  • Contemplation/Reflection
  • Turning Point
  • Resolution
  • Deep emotions

Exploring each of these plot points alters the characters’ view of their world. Every change in a character’s awareness directly impacts the direction of the story and doles out information the reader and/or the characters require to advance.

I like to use a watershed scene from the book, the Fellowship of the Ring, as an example of this. If you have only seen the movie, the version you know is quite different. You haven’t seen the real story as J.R.R. himself told it.

So, toward the end of book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series, we come to The Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.

Each character attending the Council has arrived there on a separate errand. Each has different hopes for what will ultimately come from the meeting. Despite their various agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the ring of power. Each wants to protect their people from Sauron’s depredations if he were to regain possession of it.

This scene serves several functions:

Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond conveys information to both the protagonists and the reader.

It is a conversation scene, driven by the fact that each person in the meeting has knowledge the others need. Conversations are an excellent way to deploy necessary information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have critical knowledge.

The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension. At the Council of Elrond, many things are discussed, and the full story of the One Ring is explained, with each character offering a new piece of the puzzle. The reader and the characters receive the information at the same time at this point in the novel.

Inter-racial bigotry and confrontation: A well-placed verbal confrontation gives the reader the context they need to understand why the action occurs.

At the Council of Elrond, long-simmering racial tensions between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf surface. Each is possessed of a confrontational nature, and it isn’t clear whether they will be able to work together or not.

Thus, we have action/confrontation in this vignette, followed by conversation, followed by the characters’ reactions.

The conversation and reaction give the scene context, which is critical. A scene that is all action can be confusing if it has no context.

Other conflicts are explored, and heated exchanges occur between Aragorn and Boromir.

Negotiation: What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? These concessions must be negotiated.

First, Tom Bombadil is mentioned as one who could safely take the ring to Mordor as it has no power over him. Gandalf feels he would simply lose the ring or give it away because Tom lives in a reality of his own and doesn’t see Sauron as a problem.

Bilbo volunteers, but he is too old and frail. Others offer, but none are accepted as good candidates for the job of ring-bearer for one reason or another.

Each justification Gandalf and Elrond offer for why these characters are wrong for the job deploys a small bit of information the reader needs.

Turning Point: After much discussion, many revelations, and bitter arguments, Frodo declares that he will go to Mordor and dispose of the ring, giving up his chance to live his remaining life in the comfort and safety of Rivendell. Sam emerges from his hiding place and demands to be allowed to accompany Frodo. This moment is the turning point of the story.

(The movie portrays this scene differently, with Pip and Merry hiding in the shadows. Also, in the book, the decision about who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to one day.)

The arc of the story is supported by smaller arcs. These arcs of conflict and reflection are scenes.

The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it started, leading to the brief transition scene.

Transitions can be as simple as a change of setting, one character leaving the room for a breath of air. They can be hard transitions; the scene ends, and with it, so does that chapter.

Within a chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene, offering a chance to absorb what just happened. This rhythm of action – reaction – action – reaction is how we adjust the pacing. Pacing is how we affect the reader’s emotions.

With each scene, we push the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist is shaped by experiencing events and receiving needed information through action and conversation.

All the arcs together form a cathedral-like structure: the novel.

By creating small arcs, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel at the same time as the protagonist does. This is how we give the reader a sense of immediacy.


Credits and Attributions:

Facade of the Cathedral of Milan, Italy, in February 2009, after its cleaning.  MarkusMark, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

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Chapter Length and Point of View #amwriting

Authors just starting out often wonder how long a chapter should be. A good rule of thumb is to consider the comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. With that said, you must decide what your style is going to be.

Over the years, I’ve read and enjoyed many books where the authors made each scene a chapter, even if it was only two or three hundred words long. They ended up with over 100 chapters in their books, but it worked for me when I was reading it.

I’ve attended seminars given by authors who say they have a specific word-count limit for their chapter length. One keeps them at 1,500. One of my favorite authors sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each character’s storyline separate and flows well. I personally have found that for my style of storytelling, 2,500 to 3,000 words is a good length.

In a book, each chapter should detail the events of one scene or several related scenes. Chapters are like paragraphs, in that cramming too many disparate ideas into one place makes them feel erratic and disconnected.

One of my forthcoming books has longer chapters, as it is really a collection of short stories that take place over forty years of one character’s life. It follows the chronological order of his life and the chapters are vignettes detailing large events that changed him profoundly. These long chapters do contain hard breaks.

Conversations make good transitions to propel the story forward to the next scene, and they also offer ways to end a chapter with a tidbit of information that will compel the reader to turn the page. Information is crucial but should be offered only as the reader requires it.

A good conversation is about something one or more characters don’t know. It builds toward something the characters are only beginning to understand. A conversation is an opportunity to close a scene or chapter with a hook.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter. They reveal something new and push the story forward toward the final showdown.

Fade-to-black and hard scene breaks: I don’t like fade-to-black transitions except as a finish to a chapter. Fading-to-black at the end of a scene can make the story feel mushy if there is no finite transition.

When a length of time has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, it makes sense to wind it up with a firm finish and a hook and start a new chapter.

Having said that, if you are writing a short story, dividing it into chapters isn’t an option. At the end of a scene, you may find that a hard break is required. Editors with open calls for short stories will often ask that you insert an asterisk or hashtag to indicate a hard scene break.

With each scene, we push the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view. I agree, as a hard transition between characters is the best way to avoid head-hopping.

Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck” and makes following the storyline difficult. Sometimes more than one character has a point of view that needs to be shown but readers will thank you if you limit point of view changes.

One of the problems some readers have with Robert Jordan’s brilliant Wheel of Time Series is the way he wandered around between storylines as if he couldn’t decide who the main character was. Rand Al Thor begins as the protagonist, but Matrim, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are also given prime story lines.

I’m a dedicated WoT fan, but even I found that exceedingly annoying long about book eight, Path of Daggers. I was halfway through reading that book when I realized there was a good chance that we were never going to see Rand do what he was reborn to do.

At that point, I kept reading because the world and the events were so intriguing.

As very few of us are writers at Robert Jordan’s level, I suggest you concentrate on developing a single compelling, well-rounded main character, with the side characters well-developed but not upstaging the star.

It’s easier for the reader to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the story. If you do switch POV characters, I strongly suggest that you change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs or end the chapter.

Now we come to a commonly asked question: Should I use numbers, or give each chapter a name?

What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If snappy titles pop up in your mind for each chapter, by all means go for it. Otherwise, numbered chapters are perfectly fine and don’t throw the reader out of the book. One series of my books has numbered chapters, the other has titled chapters.

Whichever style of chapter heading you choose, numbered or titled, be consistent and stay with that choice for the entire book.

To wind this up: Limit your point of view characters to one per scene. Limit each chapter to show events that are related, rather than a jumble of unrelated events.

When it comes to chapter length, you must make the decision as to the right length and end chapters at a logical place. But do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.

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