Break for Emphasis

In commercial fiction, where to break for a new chapter is one of more important structural concerns an author has. Unless you employ very short chapters as a rule, you need to watch how to construct a chapter that contains multiple scenes. I should point out, to start, that any chapter structure works as long as it is used consistently. If you set up a pattern of 4-5 page chapters, the reader gets used to that rhythm. Conversely, if you set up a pattern of chapters that each has 4-5 scenes, the reader falls into that rhythm. What doesn’t work is an author mechanically stringing scenes together within a chapter because each one is supposed to contain X number of scenes.

The problem with the multi-part chapter lies in what might be called: diminished by the tide. In other words, each scene creates an emotional wave. That wave ebbs as the reader becomes interested in the following scene, and so on throughout the chapter. If a major plot turn occurs in Scene 2, that wave should be important. Yet the reader responds to your signals. If you immediately follow that scene with another one, that tells him: oh, I guess it wasn’t so important, because it’s just another scene in this chapter.

The even worse sin is muddying the emotional impact of a key plot turn with a following scene that features a less important event. The reader ends the chapter remembering that minor event better. That’s because a chapter break can allow her time to reflect on what happened during the chapter. Yet the reader isn’t a dummy. She knows which plot turns affect her most powerfully. So why, she may ask, did the author bury that event in the middle of the chapter?

White space on a page can be the exclamation point for a key plot event. As a bookstore browser, you probably are well aware that each chapter break represents an opportunity to put down the book. Yet if the emotional impact of a scene is strong enough, the reader turns the page. The tide, in effect, carries the reader over the break. So when you have key events, make the event stand out by placing the scene at the end of the chapter. That way its emotional impact will linger in the reader’s mind.

Exercise: If you like longer chapters that contain multiple scenes, go through your draft and make one-sentence summaries of every scene. When you are finished, look at the list and assign a rough value to the scene’s importance: 1, 2, or 3. Do you have any 1’s in the middle of a chapter? If so, see if you can work the timing of the scene so that it comes last in the chapter. Or, make it a stand-alone chapter.

“Success comes to a writer, as a rule, so gradually that it is always something of a shock to him to look back and realize the heights to which he has climbed.”
—P. G. Wodehouse

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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