Tag Archives: the arc of the scene

Chapter length #amwriting

Authors just starting out often wonder how long should a chapter 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.

Some authors make each scene, no matter how short, a chapter. They will end up with 100 or more chapters in their books, and that is perfectly fine.

Other authors try to set a word-count limit. I personally have found that 2,500 to 3,000 words is a good length, and most scenes seem to average that. One series of my books has  longer chapters, as it is really a collection of stories surrounding the main character. In that series, each story forms a chapter and sometime they are longer than 3,000 words.

Within the arc of the entire story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by 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 began. Once you have decided what length you are comfortable with for your chapters, longer scenes can be an entire chapter on their own, or several scenes can be chained together to make a chapter.

When you chain scenes together within one chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter—it must reveal something and push the story forward toward something.

With each scene we are also pushing 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, and this is my preferred choice. I don’t think that is completely necessary in every case, but you should limit point of view changes. 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, you must change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs, 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.”)

So now we come to a second question: Should I just use numbers, or give the 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.

How do you want your book constructed? 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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#amwriting: Asymmetric Information and the Arc of the Scene

 Most authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc  which  consists of:

  1. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  4. Falling Action, the regrouping, and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  5. The resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

Within the larger story, there are many smaller stories, “scenes” created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

In his seminar on the arc of the scene, author Scott Driscoll explains how the main difference in the arc of the scene vs. the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s narrative arc than the previous scene did, driving the narrative.

In my mind, this means that novels are like Gothic Cathedrals–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries. Each small arc of the scene builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel.

These small arcs of action and reaction ensure the plot doesn’t stall and create tension that drives the story to the four cardinal points of the story arc.

Conversations are scenes that form a fundamental part of the overall arc: they begin, rise to a peak, and ebb. They inform us of something we must know to understand the forthcoming action. Conversations propel the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said “Dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.”

That is true of every aspect of a scene: action, conversation, reaction. A scene that is is all action can be confusing if it has no context. If there is no silent witness (an omniscient presence if you will) a properly placed conversation can give the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

A certain amount of context can arrive through internal monologue, but it must be done in such a way that the reader is not faced with a wall of italics. There are two problems with long mental conversations:

  1. italics are daunting in large chunks.
  2. it can become a thinly veiled cover for an info dump.

Plot points are driven by the the characters who have the critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension.

Consider the concept of asymmetric information–a situation in which one party in a business transaction has more or superior information compared to another. In business, one individual’s pursuit of pure self-interest can prevent other companies from effectively entering and competing in an industry or market. He/she has the critical knowledge they don’t have and effectively eliminates his competition. He has a monopoly.

That monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, a conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need. Idle conversation will bore your reader to tears, so ditch the smalltalk.

We deploy info, but we don’t dump it in one large chunk though–the reader must find it out at the same time as the other characters, over the first 3/4 of the novel.

We do this in small arcs that combine to form the overall story arc. Events occur, linked by conversations, forming small arcs (scenes) that support the structure of the novel.

By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension. This is a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.


Credits and Attributions:

This post first appeared on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as The Arc of the Scene by Connie J. Jasperson © 2015 in July of 2015. It has been re-edited and recycled.

Image: Page one of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office filing by Charles Darrow for a patent on the board game Monopoly. The original uploader was JohnDBuell at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/DarrowPage1.png

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#amwriting: bloated conversations are bad for business

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL AUTHORSBeing an author is a business. It is a retail business, and you must look at it from that point of view, even if your work isn’t selling like hotcakes at the local diner. Big, fat books that are full of bloated exposition and conversations to nowhere are more expensive to publish and are unlikely to sell once the prospective reader has leafed through them.

Once you have a book published, you have a business, whether you are an Indie or traditionally published, and you must think about it from that angle. Wouldn’t you like to see some money from your work? Your best chance of this is at trade shows and book signing events. However,

  • In the real world, authors must pay for each book that is stocked on their table.

“This won’t apply to me,” you say.  “I’m going the traditional route. Once I sell my book to that Big Publisher in the Sky, he will provide me with all the copies of my books that I will ever need when I do signings, at no cost to me.”

Not so, my deluded friend.

A traditional publisher who is really excited about your book might arrange for you to have a table at a convention and will advance you copies of the books for you to sell and sign, but the cost of those books will come out of your earned royalties. You will see no money from your publisher until your book has out-earned all the advances they have paid you. So, just like an Indie, you pay for the books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and at most book-signings. The fact is, many traditionally published authors never out-earn their advances. Retail sales at shows are where they stand the most chance of bringing home money from book sales.

Consider how many copies of each book you can afford to take to the book signing event. You must weigh this cost against what you think the demand will be. Books that cost YOU more than $5.99 each are not a good thing for an Indie, because you must pony-up the cash at the time you order them. If you buy too many and they don’t sell, you have a lot of cash tied up in stock-on-hand that is earning you nothing.

For an indie who writes epic fantasy, it’s most cost-effective to keep your work to between 90,000 and 120,000 words if you intend to print through CreateSpace, which prints my paper books. If you have written a 300,000-word epic fantasy, consider dividing it into three volumes of 100,000 words each. Otherwise, you will be required to charge $17.99 to $20.00 per book just to make a minimal profit through Amazon.

How do we keep this cost down? We get a grip on the fluff that has worked its way into our work, and trust me, I didn’t understand this when I first began writing full time.

In the first draft, we have created a large amount of backstory. This is because we needed it to get a grip on the characters, their world, and the situation in order to write it. This is work the reader does not need to know the minuscule details of. To avoid info dumps and yet deploy the background as it is needed, we write conversations.

We need to exercise restraint. In the second draft, we decide what is crucial to the advancement of the plot and what could be done without. In recent years, I have begun cutting entire chapters that, when I looked at them realistically, were only background. In some cases, it was my favorite work, but when looked at with an independent eye, it didn’t do anything but stall the forward momentum of my book.

So how do we convey a sense of naturalness and avoid the pitfalls of the dreaded info dump and stilted dialogue? First, we must consider how the conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

The Arc of the Conversation

It begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, an integral part of the scene, propelling the story forward to the launching point for the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.”

First, we must identify what must be conveyed in our conversation.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. How many paragraphs do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot. Think like a screenwriter–visualize the conversation as if you are viewing it on a stage. Does the thought of two heads yammering about the weather for half an hour really interest you? No. Show the weather and spend your conversations on the important things. Walls of conversation don’t keep the action moving and will lose readers.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

So now that we know what must be conveyed and why, we arrive in the minefield of the manuscript:

  • Delivering the backstory.

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADDon’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those can become info dumps laced with useless fluff and are sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader.

When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things. Characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, and it doesn’t seem remotely real.

  • Background information must be deployed on a “need to know” basis. If it is not important at that moment, the reader does not need to know it.
  • The only time exposition works is when both the reader and the character being spoken to do not know the information being artfully dumped.

When reading, even dedicated readers will skip over large, unbroken blocks of words. Elmore Leonard famously said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

I feel this goes double for dialogue.

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Elements of the story: Conversation, gestures, and actions

My Writing LifeCreating memorable characters is the goal of all authors–after all, who would read a book if the characters are bland or uninteresting? But what is it that makes a character interesting? Is it just witty conversation?

That is surely a part of it, but think about the people you know. Picture the ones you like to spend time with. What is it about them that captured your interest in the first place? I’m not talking lovers here, so set the intangible, irresistible chemistry aside, for the moment.

Was it their gestures, their mannerisms that intrigued you before you got to know them? Something about them caught your interest, and you found a kindred spirit.

That is what we want to do for our characters.

And no, I don’t mean for you to inject an excess of flushing, smirking, eye-rolling, or shrugging into your story.

I want you to think natural: People don’t only use their faces to communicate. People’s bodies and faces are in constant motion, and that is how you want your characters to seem. You can do this in small, unobtrusive ways by visualizing your conversations and the character’s who are having them.

Consider this excerpt from one of my works in progress, Billy Ninefingers. These excerpts are from my rough draft and will be tightened up, but I am using them as the examples today.  This tale takes place in the world of Waldeyn, and Huw the Bard figures prominently in it, although not in the opening chapters. This conversation happens just before the first plot point. It is the calm before the storm and reveals some of Billy’s personality and his sidekick, Alan Le Clerk. It shows them as mercenaries and as people, and also shows their environment.

Conversation 1 Billy and Alan

 

Billy and Alan are clearly friends. It’s a sunny day and they are obviously wearing armor. Their conversation tells us they’re concerned about the trail they are on. Through that, we learn that world they live in is dangerous and people must hire guards to protect them from more than just highwaymen if they choose to travel. The three paragraphs of that conversation are all the reader needs to know about the work they do and the trail they are riding. That scene ends and the next scene  takes them and the merchant they are guarding to their destination, the dark, dirty town of Somber Flats.

That is where we come to the lead-up to the inciting action. This is where we meet Bastard John, and it is one of the few times he will be in such a place that we can see who he is. The second plot point makes no sense unless the reader knows that the Bastard is an obnoxious bastard, and proud to be so-named.

Conversation 2 Billy and Bastard John

 

We know the Bastard is a bastard when he is drunk. We know he is capable of acting on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind. We also see that Billy has a sense of fair-play.

Picture your conversations as if your were there with them. People miss a few beats when they are speaking. They gather their thoughts and  speak in short bursts. They shift in their chair, or stand up, or wave a hand to emphasize a point. They turn, and they sometimes mumble.

And it is important to remember that every character’s mannerisms are individual, uniquely theirs. You, as the author visualize them this way, but it is your task to commit their personalities to paper, and that is where many authors fail.

Through physical actions and conversational interactions we make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be). Their actions also help to show the environment they exist in. Within the scene of the conversation, you have the opportunity to convey the setting and the mood of your characters.

Claude Monet Painting in his Garden, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Claude Monet Painting in his Garden, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We use our words sparingly and with intention, painting the setting as if we were artists in the style of the  impressionists. With color and small hints a good author gives the impression of detail, offering the reader a framework for  to hang his imagination on.

When characters act and speak naturally within a clearly visualized impression of a setting, we as readers,  suspend our disbelief and become immersed in the story.

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Elements of the story: the structure of the scene

Most authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc  which  consists of :

  1. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  4. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  5. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

The Arc of the Story

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge says, “In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story: The end of a narrative arc is the denouement. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.”

However, as we’ve discussed before, within the larger story there are many smaller stories, “scenes” created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

Last July, at the 2014 PNWA Conference, in his seminar on the arc of the scene, author Scott Driscoll explained how the main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches.

Once he explained it in that fashion, I understood it. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s Narrative Arc than the previous scene did, pushing the narrative toward the climax.

Milano_Duomo_1856

Milano Duomo 1856 via Wikipedia

In my mind, this means that novels are like Gothic Cathedrals–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries. Each small arc of the scene builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel.

These small arcs of action and reaction ensure the plot doesn’t stall and create tension that drives the story to the four cardinal points of the story arc.

Conversations are scenes that form a fundamental part of the overall arc: they begin, rise to a peak, and ebb. They inform us of something we must know to understand the forthcoming action. Conversations propel the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said “Dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.”

That is true of every aspect of a scene: action, conversation, reaction. A scene that is is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed conversation can give the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

A certain amount of context can arrive through internal monologue, but it must be done in such a way that the reader is not faced with a wall of italics. There are two problems with long mental conversations:

  1. italics are daunting in large chunks.
  2. it can become a thinly veiled cover for an info dump.

Remember, in novels, not everyone in the scene knows everything, so their thoughts won’t be that critical, and are therefore not needed. Plot points are driven by the the characters who do have the critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension.

Consider the concept of  asymmetric information–a situation in which one party in a business transaction has more or superior information compared to another. In business, one individual’s pursuit of pure self-interest can prevent other companies from effectively entering and competing in an industry or market–he has critical knowledge they don’t have, and effectively eliminates his competition. He has a monopoly.

That monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, a conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need. Idle conversation will bore your reader to tears.

We deploy info, but we don’t dump it in one large chunk though–the reader must find it out at the same time as the other characters, over the first 3/4 of the novel.

We do this in small arcs that combine to form the overall story arc. Events occur, linked by conversations, forming small arcs (scenes) that support the structure of the novel.

The Story Arc

 

By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.

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Creating Conversations

Socks and Sandals MemeConversations are easy to write…badly.

Unless the author thinks about it carefully, they can be stilted, stiff, and an unnatural wall of blah-blah-blah. Good writing involves learning the craft, and nowhere is that more apparent than in a conversation.

So how does the intrepid author write this phenomenon in such a way that it sounds natural? I always think of a conversation as having an arc: It begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, an integral part of the scene, propelling the story forward to the next scene.

We might jabber about nothing, but in writing,  a good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said that good dialogue must have a premise and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.

First, when we write about conversations between our characters, we want to ensure they don’t all sound like the same person. Imagine you are at a party. If you look around you, observing the conversations going on in small clusters, you will notice that every person has different mannerisms. The same is true of your characters when you see them in your head. With that image in mind,  you want to include those differences in their gestures, and their manner of speech.

When people talk, they rarely follow grammatical rules. Any English class you’ve taken will have stressed the importance of using proper grammar and punctuation in your writing, and believe me, those rules are important. However, when we attempt to write dialogue, those same rules should be thrown out of the window. People speak in broken sentences, with pauses, and even use incorrect words.

Now we get to the part where my editor and I have our own little conversation—the one where I stick random bits of punctuation in at odd places and she puts them where they belong or removes them entirely:

She: “I agree with the grammar part. I take exception to the punctuation. Punctuation rules MUST be followed especially in dialogue so that the reader reads the dialogue in the same manner the writer intended it to be read.”

Me: “Yes, ma’am.” (Muttering as I find ways to insert action where I want the pauses to go.)

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Spock's_Brain_Star_Trek_1968We all take breaths at different places. Some people speak quickly and off the cuff, with short bursts. Others consider their words before they say them and speak more slowly. Every person in a given room speaks with their own unique style and pattern.

What are the roots of these patterns?  Speech habits are born in the environment the speaker grows up in, but they become identifiable mannerisms acquired throughout our lives.

Consider how the conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: first we must identify what must be conveyed in our conversation.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. And how many paragraphs do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot. Walls of meaningless conversation don’t keep the action moving and will lose readers, so  the conversations you include in your narrative must be important—and intriguing.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

SHotel California Memeome people will have the characters discuss the back-story, and this can be good if done the right way, in small snippets at critical points, and only when that information is needed. But this can be bad, especially when used as away to dump history in long, bloated paragraphs of dialogue.

Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those are sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. When asked how to write a good book, Elmore Leonard said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

That goes double for dialogue. When I think of the novels I’ve enjoyed the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.

We don’t want our characters to be just a bunch of talking heads, sitting around, yammering on. It’s unnatural and doesn’t happen in real life except on the nightly news.

I’ve mentioned this before, but your characters should pause in their conversations, and sometimes miss a few beats. Beats are what screenwriters call the little bits of physical action that are inserted into dialogue and which in a novel can serve to indicate who said what without a dialogue tag interfering with it. Actions serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture, especially when an author is trying to balance the use of dialogue tags.

e3-2013-trailer-final-fantasy-x-x-2-hd-remasterRemember, actions are best placed where there’s a natural break in the dialogue. They show the mood and personality of your characters and allow the reader to experience the same pause in the dialogue as the characters do, and increase the sense of immediacy, making the scene real in the reader’s mind. It’s through the small habits we give our characters that we convey a little bit of their back-story, without having to resort to an info dump.

 

 

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Dazed and confused

my sisters grave robert dugoniI am a a bit dazed and confused right now. I have been intensely preparing to give a seminar on writing dialogue at conference next weekend, but now the convention has been cancelled. Apparently not enough people pre registered. And I was all prepped to hear an announcement from Robert Dugoni!  Now I won’t know what it is until he tweets it. And his book, My Sister’s Grave was just named one of the top five thrillers of 2014.  I love it when an Indie goes viral!

But on the positive side, I am now free to focus on editing for clients, prepping for NaNoWriMo 2014 and several other things that demand my attention. Also, I don’t have to hope and pray I can find a vegan-friendly restaurant near the hotel (which I also cancelled.)

I had planned to talk about talking–at least about how your characters might talk, if they were talking to you in real life.

So how do we convey a sense of naturalness and avoid the pitfalls of the dreaded info dump and stilted dialogue? First, we must consider how the conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

It begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, an integral part of the scene, propelling the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.

First we must identify what must be conveyed in our conversation.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. And how many paragraphs do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot. Walls of conversation don’t keep the action moving and will lose readers, so make the conversations important—and intriguing.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

So now that we know what must be conveyed and why, we arrive in the minefield of the manuscript. That will be the subject of my next blogpost.

The Arc of the Conversation

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