Saturday, 31 October 2015

Chapter or Scene Break? How and when to use them - Part 1

We’ve touched on chapter and scene breaks previously; however lots of people have asked for more information on this subject, particularly when it comes to recognising the right moment to either use a scene break or to create a new chapter.
Firstly, it’s worth understanding the difference between a scene break and a chapter and what they mean, because while they may form many of the different aspects of writing, they perform different functions and they are not entirely straightforward – the explanation behind how to use them and when to use them is a little more complex.
Scene breaks are exactly that – a break in the current scene, which can happen for a variety of reasons, such as moving the story forward to the next important scene or changing the character POV. Not only that, but scene breaks are also used in order to show the passage of time.
Chapters are another way of moving the story forward coherently and cleanly. But chapters represent an entirely new section of the story.
Although their functions may seem similar, they do perform different tasks. But how do you distinguish which one you need to use? When is the right time to break a scene? How do you know when to begin a new chapter?
There are no rules. Often it comes down to intuition and experience – the more you work on your novel, the more you understand what is needed or how you want to change it. That said, there are some things which will help the writer choose the correct one.
When to do a scene break
Scenes cannot go on forever; otherwise you’ll end up with endless narrative that veers off on so many tangents that the story eventually becomes lost. Scene breaks keep the story in check; they break what are, in effect, huge chunks of narrative, description and dialogue into more manageable sizes for the reader. It makes it easier for them to follow the story, and it makes it easier for the writer to write it.
If you are unsure when to include a scene break, first ask the following questions:-

1. Do I need to change the point of view to another character?

2. Is the story plodding on? Does it lack direction? Is it running out of steam?

3. Have my characters run out of things to say?

4. Do I need to move ahead in time by hours or days?

5. Do I need to use a flashback?

The answer to the above list will inevitably be yes. If you are writing a third-person multiple viewpoint novel, then you will need to change POV at some point to keep the story interesting, fresh and dynamic.

If the story begins to plod, it means it has lost direction and the scenes are going on far longer than necessary.  A scene break offers the chance to move the story forward; it keeps things moving and in so doing, keeps the reader interested. Don’t loiter with boring, mundane detail. Move on.

After John left, Sarah made herself a coffee and sat down to watch TV, since she didn’t know when he would be back, but she knew she would have to start dinner around 6pm. She flicked through the channels, deciding what to watch…

Zzzz. This example shows what happens when the narrative becomes boring, unnecessary and does nothing to further the plot.

When your characters run out of interesting things to say – the kind of things that have no bearing to the story or plot – then it’s time for a scene break. Often writers don’t know when to give their characters a break. But the moment they start talking about the mundane is the time to have a scene break. For example:

Sarah noticed Jane in the garden and approached. ‘Those roses are coming along.’

‘They are, especially since we’ve had such good weather,’ Jane said. ‘I think I might plant some more for next year.’

‘The colours are amazing.’

The dialogue in this example has become mundane and doesn’t move the story forward. Readers don’t want to know about Jane’s roses. Dialogue should only concern what is vital to advancing the story.

New writers in particular have a tendency to describe everything, and I mean everything, which includes characters moving forward hours or days. For example, if you describe a character leaving the house, getting into the car, starting the engine, driving somewhere, avoiding traffic, parking up, getting out…all this boring and unnecessary exposition can be transitioned by a new scene that simply shows the character at the destination. In other words, the new scene has allowed the story to move forward cleanly without pages of boring description, for example:

John headed to the car, knew he had to get to see Olivia.

(Scene break, and new scene below)

John pulled up in the car, looked up at the imposing Georgian house belonging to Olivia’s parents…

Instead of describing John’s journey, and risking boring the reader, the scene break allows the story to move forward and cut out unnecessary waffle, and it starts again at a pertinent moment, outside Olivia’s house.

A scene break is also a good way of breaking away from the main action of the story if you want to use a flashback. This signifies to the reader that there is a new scene, yet at the same time it ensures there is no confusion, for example:

Bill looked at the old house, now crumbling with age, yet still full with memories. Despite its appearance, he could still hear the sounds of children’s voices, full with cheer. To him, the old girl still looked beautiful.

(Scene break, and new flashback scene below)

‘Welcome to the Manor House,’ Father Brown had said,  the day Billy Logan arrived with his satchel, flat cap and gas mask, and a neat little tag showing his name…

The scene break allows Bill’s flashback to take place, without interfering with the main narrative. The reader is in no doubt that a flashback is occurring because A) the narrative hinted this with Bill’s memories and B) it uses past pluperfect tense, i.e. ‘Father Brown had said…’ The word ‘had’ signifies that this scene has happened farther in the past.

Scene breaks are a very useful way to move things along without disruptive the narrative flow. But by asking those important questions above, you will have an idea when to apply a scene break, but also a reason why.

In Part 2 we’ll look at when it’s best to use chapters instead of scene breaks and how to use them effectively.

Next week: Chapter or Scene Break? How and when to use them - Part 2

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Tricks to Hook Your Reader

I’ve touched on this in previous articles, but it’s one of those subjects that are eternally popular with writers, especially beginners, who are keen to employ as many tricks as possible to get their novels noticed, and one of those ways is to engineer a good hook – something that grabs the reader from the outset.
But how do you grab the reader in the first place?
Open some of the books on your bookshelf and make a note of how they begin. What is it that grabs your interest and compels you to read them? Does the book engage your curiosity or fascination? Does it start with a bang? Or does it start slowly and gain momentum, yet at the same time is interesting or quirky? You’ll find the results will be varied – some books are great openers, some take a while to warm up while others are a damp squib.
So, what elements make a great hook?
The Crucial Moment
Start at a crucial moment. Every writer should know this one. If you start at a pivotal moment within the story – the protagonist in a bad situation, for instance – you stand a better chance of hooking the reader, who will immediately want to know what happens next, because it forces them to immediately become part of the story. It creates immediacy. They simply have to know what happens, for example:
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not” - City of Glass by Paul Auster.
“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall” –Tracks, by Louise Erdrich.
Create Intrigue
If you create intrigue, then you create a sense of curiosity, which draws the reader’s attention. Intrigue acts as a lure to get the reader to keep reading. Like the crucial moment, it engages them, makes them wonder. For example, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, intrigue is created by the use of the surreal:
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
Iain Banks’ The Crow Road has a great opening, one that creates intrigue and surprise in equal measure: "It was the day my grandmother exploded."
Create Memorable Description
Some experts advise against opening with description, but in truth there is nothing wrong with this, as long as it is well written, it engages the reader with the right imagery and has enough intrigue to compel the reader to continue reading.
The idea is to make the description compelling, whether it is tonal, atmospheric, beautiful or action-led. The right words help to draw the reader from reality and into the fictional world you’ve created. The imagery you create should transport them and they won’t want to leave. Many books begin with description, as these examples show:
“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting" - The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.
“She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him” - The Wings of the Dove by Henry James.
Introduce the Protagonist
Don’t spend three chapters setting the scene with no hint of your protagonist until page 4. Introduce your main character immediately and make them interesting, fascinating, exciting or heroic. He or she will carry the story, so you have to ensure that the protagonist is the kind of person the reader will want to know all about, and like.
Readers will have questions. Why is the main character in that situation? What has brought them to that opening, that crucial moment? How will they get out of it? Those are questions readers ask, and they will continue to read in order to get the answers, so get your main character on as soon as the page is opened.
Open With Conflict
Conflict is the driving force of your story, and readers love conflict because – just as in real life – we just can’t help but get involved with (and sometimes enjoy) disagreements and arguments. It’s human nature to fight of flight. That means you might open with a tense standoff between characters. Or perhaps a fight scene. Or a chase scene.
Whatever you decide, readers will want to get involved in the same way as we do in real life, they will want to know what’s happening, why it’s happening and how it will be resolved. 
Open with a Bang
This doesn’t always have to be literal – when we say ‘open with a bang’ we mean that the opening should start right in the action – maybe it’s a chase scene, maybe there has been a car crash, maybe there’s a battle of some kind. And of course, you can actually open with a literal bang – an explosion of some sort.
Whichever you choose, opening in this way is a short burst that will grab your reader’s attention. They will want to know if your protagonist is going to be okay, if he or she made it out of the car crash, survived the explosion or managed to avoid being caught in the battle…
Making the Hook Work
To make the hook work there are several factors at play that should not be overlooked. Firstly, writers don’t have to use every one of them, but instead, employ some of them as a means to lure the reader and make them invest in your novel.
Whether you have used conflict, opened with action or you’ve placed your protagonist in peril and started at a crucial moment, make that hook work by keeping the momentum you have created. Don’t start with a bang and end the chapter with narrative that grinds to a stop. Keep the story moving at all times.
Wherever possible, try to foreshadow. Hint to the reader that something is impending – it keeps their interest and creates that all important intrigue.
Don’t stop teasing the reader. Just because you’ve hooked them doesn’t mean you can relax. You have to keep them hooked, right to the end. Ensure you keep the reader turning the page – keep them intrigued and curious, get them to ask ‘what next?’ If you start with an impact, keep the stakes raised. Don’t make it easy for your protagonist, make it hard, and make the reader want to share the protagonist’s journey.
You’ll see that most of these hooks are interrelated – the engaging characters, crucial moments and descriptive elements etc. They can all connect together to give the best chance for hooking the reader. Think carefully how you open your novel – it’s the difference between being read and enjoyed to not being read at all.
But by far the best thing that keeps a reader interested, however, is a well developed, rounded and well written story that knocks the reader’s socks off.
Next week: Chapter or Scene Break? How and when to use them.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Why Character Actions/Reactions Are Important – Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at the complexity of character actions and reactions and why they’re an important part of the story writing process. In Part 2 we’ll look at other factors that make this essential tool so necessary – Direct Actions and Emotions.

Direct Action

Without a doubt, a character’s actions have a quite a bearing on other actions and reactions, rather like a ripple effect, and like dialogue, it’s a useful way of revealing character.

Direct action refers to what your character does in response to other characters or what he or she does in order to provoke reactions from others. And provocation is always a good thing; it creates conflict, which every story should thrive on. All this allows the writer to influence how the story evolves. Cause and effect is always in play.

What does that mean exactly? Imagine if Character B reveals a secret about one of the protagonist’s loved ones, and threatens to share this information. How will the protagonist react? And what will that reaction do to affect the story arc? Will his or her reaction influence others? Will it create a huge amount of conflict? Will it cause the protagonist to do something completely out of character, something extreme?

For every action there is reaction and the ripple effect influences things further down the line. Reactions often mirror the actions, for instance, taking someone’s hand and holding it means you care for that person, you like them.  A gentle kiss on the forehead tells the recipient that he or she is loved. These subtle actions garner subtle reactions by return, perhaps a squeeze of the hand or a smile. Conversely, more aggressive actions are usually met with aggressive reactions.

Remember that actions can:

  • Reveal character
  • Direct the story arc
  • Influence other characters
  • Provoke further reactions, which creates conflict

In the same way that silences work within dialogue - they can tell a reader so much in terms of the character’s responses and behaviour, the same is true for actions and it is usually emotion that drives this kind of reaction.  As explained in Part 1 – holding back from reaction and remaining silent is a powerful response; it is like a character that is unwilling to truthfully reveal him or herself.

Remember that every action creates a reaction, and that actions always evolve from motivation.  In real life, there is always a reason behind what we do and say. This is true for characters, so what they do and say will affect other characters and compel them to react.


The subject of emotion is a little more complex, because as writers, we can control, manipulate and feign a character’s emotions in order to influence other characters or a situation. We can provoke other characters, hurt them even. 

Often, emotions arise from reactions to something said, someone else’s actions or an event. They are a clever way of revealing character, in much the same way internal thoughts do. Our raw emotions can be very revealing, especially when we don’t want them to be, because once emotions get the better of us, we end up revealing our true personalities.
That said, we can also control emotions to affect others, to our own advantage. This Machiavellian approach works well for antagonists in particular. They love to manipulate or control other people’s emotions.

Emotions can also be intentionally held back in order to reveal someone who may be cold and calculating, or perhaps they are fearful of showing their feelings, for reasons known only to them and the writer. Whatever the reason; by creating emotion and having your characters react with emotion reveals character. It also creates empathy and immediacy with the reader.

Emotion is a powerful tool to work with; they tend to override logical thought. It makes people do strange things, whether that emotion is positive or negative, and that’s why it is so complex.

If your characters don’t react to other characters and situations, there would be little substance to the story you are telling, because without character actions and reactions to help drive the story forward, there would be little characterisation, little emotion, lack of conflict and no depth for the reader to delve into.

Remember, cause and effect happens in real life so it must also happen in your fiction. Give them reasons to act and give the rest of the characters reasons to react.

Next week: Tricks to hook your reader.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Why Character Actions/Reactions Are Important – Part 1

One of the fundamental and complex parts of characterisation comes from the actions and reactions of your characters – their interactions are constantly evolving throughout the story because they are continually acting and reacting with each other and various events and the story. Without action and reactions, there would be no determinable relationship between any of your characters, and therefore little to give the reader.

Why are character actions/reactions important? 

Actions and reactions are great way to reveal character without the need for lots of explanation or large info dumps. As writers, we can show, rather than tell, by virtue of how they respond. Everyone is multifaceted and complex and your characters should be no different.

You can show a reader as much as you want through character revelation; what they do, what they say, and sometimes what they don’t do or don’t say.

The action/reaction equation is complex on many levels, because responses rely entirely on actions, which also rely on catalysts – the very things that set in motion the events that lead to your character to react in various different ways. There is always a reason behind what we do and say.

What made them react – what is the reason?

How do they react?

Why do they react?

Do they react at all?

Reason - Action - Reaction = Character revelation.

Characters respond to other characters and situations in so many ways, and what they do can reveal certain information to the reader that helps them understand your character’s behaviours, personality and motivations. For example, if your character saves a dog from drowning, it tells the reader that the character is caring and kind, maybe a little impetuous, but all without the need to explain this.

If the character reacts angrily to something, like being stuck in a long queue and seeing queue-jumpers, for example, then it shows that the character can easily become annoyed or irritated by the behaviour of others, since queue jumping is a sign of mad manners.  On the other hand, if a character doesn’t react, then it shows the reader that they don’t get upset about that kind of impolite behaviour from others, because they are more tolerant and easy going.

Of course, it’s not just actions that create character responses. A character could also react to someone else’s words. Think of real life situations and how we react to other people – what they say to us forms the basis of how we react and respond to them.

The way your character acts and reacts reveals the kind of person your character is. They are complex because actions and responses can be subtle or overt, they can be vocal, they can be silent, and they can even be hidden.

There are many ways a writer can manipulate actions and reactions by using dialogue, direct actions, emotions and internal thoughts. How a writer does it is key to how effective it becomes.


The great thing about dialogue is that is can be manipulated to illicit responses from the reader. A character may talk with passion or anger or heightened emotion…or none at all, and what they say in conversation should draw your reader and engage them.

Of course, what is really interesting is that what your character says in response to others can reveal so much about that character. Not only that, but writers can also engineer conflict from their character’s responses this way. Arguments and disagreements can be powerful; they can provoke heightened or sometimes irrational responses, and in so doing, reveal more about your character to your readers, because what they see is true emotion, not feigned sentiment.

In everyday life we are constantly reacting to others when in conversation. Sometimes we say something funny, sometimes we lash out and say things we don’t mean, sometimes we snap and shout, and sometimes we don’t say anything at all, for fear of saying the wrong thing or because we know we’re at fault.

Sometimes, we stay silent because anger and emotion prevents us, so crafted silences can be just as powerful as conversation. Therefore, what a character doesn’t say can be just as powerful as what he does say.  A character might hold back for many reasons – it’s up to the writer to show this to the reader.

Internal Thought

Your character can also react to the actions of, or conversations with, other characters by using internal thought. They are another great way of revealing character personality without the need for exposition – they allow the reader to see the character’s true feelings, opinions and emotions.

As an example, a main character may say something in response to another character, but he could be thinking something entirely different. His responding action might be a forced smile, but his thoughts might reveal his silent anger or offence. His true reaction is therefore revealed in thought, not actions, and because the reader is privy to those thoughts, a sense of immediacy will help them connect with the character.

In Part 2 we’ll look at how a character’s direct actions and their emotions affect the dynamics of actions and reactions and overall characterisation within the story.

Next week: Why Character Actions/Reactions Are Important – Part 2