Wednesday, December 20, 2017

And...End Scene: When to Add a Scene Break

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Elmore Leonard is frequently quoted as saying: "I try to leave out the parts people skip." Nowhere is this more useful than in knowing when to break a scene. Transitions have a funny way of being the parts people skip.

But there's a skill to knowing when to break a scene. You don't want to just stop and jump ahead in time or location, because that can jar the reader. Too many awkward scene breaks can feel like pieces of a story strung together and lose the narrative flow. Breaking every time you get to a good hook line just feels choppy and...weird. Like chapter breaks, a good scene break should make the reader think "ooooh" and keep on reading.

What makes a good scene break?

You'd think cliffhangers, but no, that can get boring after a while or even become melodramatic. A good scene break is one that leaves the reader with a sense of forward momentum. The story isn't stopping, it's nudging them on with a renewed sense of curiosity. Some common ways to do this:

The "Dum-Dum-DUMMM!" Moment

Reveal something and shock both readers and characters. Not only is it a surprise, but it probably requires immediate action on the protagonist's part. Hence, it moves the story forward to the next scene without having to say "three hours later" or something similar.
Bob froze and stared at the vial in Sally's backpack. Silvery liquid swirled. Was this--? No, it couldn't be. He glanced at Sally and a few odd things suddenly made more sense.
And he didn't like any of them.  
-scene break-
The vial tugged at his pocket as they crept along what used to be Vanguard Street. He couldn't take his eyes off Sally's back. Everything she did held new meaning now.
A scene break like this makes readers question Sally the same as Bob does, and wonder what he just put together. If done well, readers might even reevaluate what they thought they knew and see details of the plot in a new light.

(Here's more on A Simple Trick to Keep Readers Turning the Pages)

The "We Have to Do This" Moment

State a goal and show things about to happen, allowing you to jump right to that point of the story. This type of break lets readers know what has to be done and where the characters are going, even if it's just a vague idea. Showing the trip to get there isn't necessary, so you can skip the boring parts of getting there.
"That settles it," said Bob grabbing the sub-machine gun off the bed. "If we're getting out of here, we're gonna have to risk the tunnel."
-scene break-
The Holland Tunnel looked like it wanted to eat them same as the zombies inside of it.
With this type of scene break, you don't have to show them leaving the hotel and going to the tunnels. You can start the next scene in the tunnels dealing with the problem (and knowing Bob, it's hoards of zombies). If you want to build a little tension before they actually enter, the scene can start with the final approach, or if you want to dive in to just before things go wrong, the scene could start inside the tunnels.

(Here's more on Tips on Writing Scene and Chapter Transitions)

The "I Hate Waiting" Moment

Make the protagonist wait to act, even though he really wants to do something. Breaking a scene at the height of a charater's discomfort is a great way to transition into him finally getting to do something. It's also fun when paired with a ticking clock, so readers know things are getting worse while the protagonist is forced to wait.
Sally put her hand on his shoulder.  "This sucks, I  know, but we can't do anything until morning."
Bob grit his teeth and nodded, but his hands itched to throw open the door and go find Jane--whatever it cost him.
-scene break-
The sun was barely up but it cast enough light to see the path through the woods, and that was good enough for him
This type of scene break plays with delayed gratification by forcing both the reader and the protagonist to wait. It also sets up an easy transition to start the next scene the moment Bob leaves to go search for Jane, the real love of his life.

(Here's more on Writing Transitions: How to Move Smoothly Through Your Novel)

The "All is Lost and I Really Need a Moment" Moment

A total emotional breakdown deserves a break, so when the protagonist has just undergone something emotionally catastrophic, why not break and skip ahead to when he's composed himself and is ready to deal with it?
The groan was unmistakable.

"No..." Bob fell to he knees. Jane gnawed at him from behind the glass, her eyes dead, the rest of her--not. 

-scene break-

"You still with me?" Sally asked, handing him a bottle of water. She'd run out of tissues a while ago.

"Yeah." But what was the point?
This type of scene break works well when watching the protagonist fall to pieces won't be very fun for readers (there's nothing happening, no goal, no stakes, he's just losing it), but watching him deal with the aftermath and while he struggles to comes to grips with it will be delicious.

The "Sleepy Time" Moment

Although you want to be very cautious about ending a scene with a character going to sleep, sometimes it is the right way to break a scene. The trick here is to do it in a way that keeps the tension high so readers don't also feel the need to hit the hay. Let the character not want to rest or sleep. Maybe going to sleep sucks at that moment, because something big and bad is looming. Yes, he's going to sleep, but anything can happen at any moment regardless.
"Get some sleep," Sally told him. "I'll wake you if the world comes to an end again."

"What are the odds of that?"

She glanced out the crack through the boarded-up windows. "Right now? I'd say three to one."
-scene break-
Glass shattered and Bob jerked awake.

The sound of the end of the world. Again.
Even though the protagonist is going to bed, there's still a sense that things could go wrong, and readers might even anticipate the odds will turn against them and Bob will wake up to a problem. In fact, it works best when there is something about to happen. Readers know it, so they keep reading to see what it is.

However, just because you have one of these moments doesn't mean you have to break the scene. Scene breaks are great ways to control the pacing of your novel and keep the focus on what matters,  but dramatized transitions are also useful. Choose the one that works best for that scene. 

How do you feel about scene breaks? Do you break often or show the transition? Do you mix them up? 

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I try to break the scene where it feels natural to end and then move to the next action scene. For me at least, long transitions break the pace too much and add to the word count. You've got great suggestions on how to break the scenes.

    I've been reading a lot of Bruce Colville's books lately. He's a master at ending scenes where you're dying to turn to the next page.

  2. I've put some scene breaks in when I realize it's trailing off and I can't find a way to end it. When I stop and look at where the drift begins, I chop it and either start over from there or made it a scene break. My better breaks are mostly from writing past the point I should have stopped and then backing up. I don't write them deliberately very well.

  3. I try to end my scenes the way I like to see them end when I'm reading; leaving the reader wanting just a little bit more so they keep reading.

    I think, aside from the last scene in a book, the worst thing a scene ending can do is leave the reader feeling like everything's okay. It should leave a sense of uncertainty and curiosity.

  4. Oh, good points! In my first draft, I was shocked at how many scenes ended with the character going to sleep (which often means the next one opens with them waking) and had to go back and mix it up a bit. But it's true that if they fall asleep with some doubts about the next day, it takes on another slant.

  5. Great advice as usual! I try to use a combination of these scene or chapter ending styles throughout my WIP, but I sometimes wonder if there's a secret for choosing which one really works best to pull the reader through.

  6. This is helpful. I have several scenes that ends where the character goes to sleep, and it gets monotonous after a while. It's nice to see what are good stopping points. :-)

  7. Such wonderful advice. I'm totally guilty of letting a scene drag on past the point of interest (same with chapters). I need to take this advice to heart.

  8. Great advice. I end scenes based on instinct. I guess that instinct has been developed over a lifetime of reading. In any case, I try to listen to the natural rhythms of the story. Generally, I break a scene at moments of inhalation or exhalation.

  9. Nice names. I need to see what scene breaks I have and how I would categorize them.

  10. I tend to break the scene when it feels natural and move to the next scene. On reviewing and editing I may create a transition if the jump is too jolting, but on first-draft write-up I like to keep things moving.
    In my head, I try to picture my story as a movie or TV show - when might the camera fade out? When would we cut to the next scene? Makes it simpler when my novel gets optioned for that blockbuster, aye? (wink wink)

  11. This is a skill I'm still learning, so thanks for the great tips!

  12. Love the tips. I tend to skip writing the boring parts, so it's good to know there are good ways to do it.

  13. I go with how the curtain draws to an end. Sometimes it's something earth-shattering, sometimes just an admission. It depends on the story and the characters and making sure you listen to them when they want to end that chap.

  14. Every time I sit down to read one of your posts, I want to get my checkbook out and send you my tuition. I learn so much over here and I wanted to say thanks.

  15. Natalie, I haven't read anything by him yet but I'll have to check one of his books out now. Thanks! Good tip about feeling natural. You can usually just feel where a scene ends.

    Jaleh, I have some that I've chopped for that very reason. I feel that "come on already, get to the good stuff" feeling :)

    Paul, couldn't agree more.

    Angelica, sleep can be a story killer, but sometimes it is the right way. The higher the "next morning stakes" the more that type of scene end works.

    Nicole, Thanks! I wish there were a secret, but it all depends on the story. The only thing that's common is to end with something in question the reader is willing to turn the page (or keep reading) to see the answer to.

    SBibb, you might try looking back to what happens right before the character goes to sleep. Is there a moment where tensions or questions are high? Try ending there and see how it flows.

    LinWash, thanks! I think we all do it from time to time. Sometimes it's because we're still figuring out a piece of the story.

    Sarah, instinct is so important and doesn't get enough credit. We can develop our skills, but that writer's ear really helps us know when something needs to happen or if something is written right.

    CO, thanks! Categorizing things always seems to help me. Like giving it a name gives you power of it :)

    Debbie, oh totally :) It's not a bad tip actually, as the boring transition stuff is usually cut out of movies.

    Julie, most welcome! It's one of those things that once you start really looking for them, it all clicks and you start seeing them.

    Maria, thanks!

    Traci, listening is good, as is varying what you do. The same thing gets boring.

    Findingbooks, LOL thanks!

  16. I've found that scenes often need the same structure as a whole story: Key Incident, Turnaround, Climax. Playing this out in a scene also shows you when to end it.

    And if a scene with that structure fits inside a bigger scene with its own version of that structure, then you keep going!

  17. Wade, absolutely! Even paragraphs roughly follow that same format.

  18. I sometimes struggle with this. I used to do scene breaks in the first draft. Now I do it later, when I have a better feel for the story. I love your advice and examples. It gives me a lot to think about.

    1. I've met writers who write the whole story as one big chunk and break it up afterward. Whatever works :)

  19. Hey, I just looked up and noticed my comment from the last time! Funny :D

    1. Funny! Did anything change since the first post?

  20. Still learning this...

    "...watching him deal with the aftermath and while he struggles to comes to grip with it will be delicious." Your sadist is showing ;)

    1. My dark side comes out in my writing :) And during certain video games.

  21. I try to do them when it "feels right." Sometimes, it's when the scene draws to a close, a revelation, trying to reach a goal/loved one. Thanks for the other ones to add to my toolbox!!

    1. Often it's all about that gut feeling. You reach one of these moments and just know. It' good to trust your instincts when that happens.

  22. Thanks so much for this post! And all the discussion is very though provoking. I have a hard time with transitions, so it's extremely timely.

  23. I was confused about this. Thanks for the great tips! now I can check these parts in my story

    1. Glad I could help clear up some confusion. If you're still having trouble just let me know.

  24. You totally get an extra 50 points for using zombies in the examples, I really enjoyed that. This is an amazing article. I'll have to read more. It was informative and entertaining.

  25. great examples. thanks for running this again!

  26. Great article! Thanks for sharing these excellent tips. This is something I always struggle with, so I appreciate this post. Happy writing to you. :)

    1. Thanks! Sometimes I'll break a scene because I don't feel like writing what happens between -grin-

  27. wHEN YOU WRITE "SCENE BREAK" what happens? Is it the end of the chapter? Do you insert ---ooOoo--- ? Just leave double white space? What?

    1. It can be, but typically a scene break is a break in a scene, and a chapter ending is the end of the chapter. Same basic principle, though chapter breaks tend to have larger hooks to keep readers reading.

      In a printed book, there's usually a blank space or sometimes a fancy graphic (like a swirl or something). In a draft, it's up to the writer, though most commonly used are ### -#- ***