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YMMV: Stop Using Scene Breaks

🌅 Run Away With Me for the Summer...

I've written before about how much I didn't enjoy The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milàn. Its faults are legion, but the issue that had the most lasting impact on me was Milàn's use of POV. The perspective character would shift sometimes every few paragraphs and the result was... well, in the linked write-up I described it as being "like trying to read a tennis match." It was incredibly taxing to have to deal with the constant shifts back and forth, and from that point on I decided to...

Stop Using Scene Breaks

Let me start out with a brief overview of what POV means for the newbies. If you don't need the refresher, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. Point of View (POV) or perspective refers to whose eyes the story is being seen through. In the broadest sense, these are delineated by which pronouns the narrator uses vis-à-vis the perspective character. 1st person uses "I," i.e., the narrator is a character in the story. 2nd person uses "you," i.e., the reader is a character in the story (very rarely used, but it does exist). 3rd person uses "he/she/they," i.e., neither the reader nor the narrator are characters in the story. 3rd can be broken down into Observer, Omniscient, and Limited. 3rd-person Observer is where the narrator is simply recounting events but does not have any access to the interior thoughts or motivations of the characters. In 3rd-person Omniscient, the narrator knows everything about the internal thoughts of the characters and will relate their thoughts as needed. Dune is a great example of this being done well. Finally 3rd-person Limited (sometimes called "Tight 3rd") is where the narrator has visibility into the internal thoughts of one character at a time and changes in POV are signaled by breaking the scene. When I say "breaking the scene," this is typically denoted by an extra line of white-space between paragraphs. 3rd-person Limited is the most common POV in adult-oriented genre fiction. End refresher.

Okay, we've got a lot of ideas coming together in this one, folks, so strap in.

Last week I talked about chapter structure and how chapters have arcs and that a great way to construct an arc for your chapter is to start with a question and end with a choice. This works pretty well, but there is a confounding factor. What if you have multiple scenes within a chapter? How do you continue that narrative through-line if you aren't going to be in the same character's head? There are ways to manage this. You can have a thematic through-line rather than a narrative one, or you can run the narrative through-lines in parallel. You can nest your through-lines, e.g., start in Character A's head with their arc, then segue to Character B's head which is a sub-arc of that one, and then go back to Character A's head to complete both arcs. There are lots of permutations of this, but my favorite is to just make your chapter a single scene. Simplifies things quite a bit. Let me explain.

One of my personal hobby-horses is comparing storytelling in movies versus prose, because the two formats are wildly different even though they share a lot of the same DNA. For instance, in prose you can get away with a lot of vagueness. On film, everything in the scene has to be designed and blocked. But in prose, you can leave most-if-not-all of those details out, and you can be poetically obtuse about them. In The Great Gatsby, the character Daisy is said to have a voice that was "full of money." What does that mean? Who knows, but you definitely get an impression of the character. You can't do that in a movie. In film, you don't have the same access to the character's interiority, but you get very strong impressions of it through nuanced acting, the use of music, framing, juxtaposition, and so forth. These are tools that prose doesn't have. You can also set a scene very quickly with inserts or establishing shots. Describing a new location takes a few seconds in film, whereas you're looking at a paragraph at least in prose. This means movies can intercut scenes or use montages in ways that pure prose simply can't.

All told, writers can learn a lot from movies about story structure, theme, and externalization, but the low-level mechanics do not translate at all. This becomes a problem because most new writers have picked up all of their storytelling chops from film or television. I cannot tell you how many first chapters I have read that have a lot of detached description, but there's practically no internalization of the characters. Instead they try to play the entire scene through dialogue and blocking. If you want to be a writer, you have to un-learn all of those bad habits and re-teach yourself storytelling more-or-less from the ground up. And one of those bad habits is an over-reliance on scene breaks.

Since movies are generally told from a 3rd-person Observer perspective, they have a lot of freedom to jump around within in a scene. You can cut from R2-D2 and C3PO getting into an escape pod to an exterior shot of the escape pod launching to the interior of a Star Destroyer where they decide not to shoot it because it has no life forms on board to the interior of that escape pod and then to an exterior shot of the pod landing on a desert planet. The entire sequence takes less than half a minute, and the audience follows it intuitively because even through there are three to five different POVs going on (depending on how you count them), we understand that it's all the same escape pod and all of this is taking place within the same scene. In fact, the quick cuts reinforce this idea. But you can't do that in prose.

And yet, writers still want to capture this--to be able to jump around to different locales within the same setting in order to capture the chaos of a scene. Tight 3rd is just not amenable to this at all, so there are really only a few ways to handle it. One way is to drop out of Tight 3rd entirely and adopt an omniscient voice. This is how it's managed in Kathryn Stockett's The Help for a chaotic scene about two-thirds of the way through the book. The rest of the book is a set of alternating 1st-person accounts, and the sudden shift in the middle is awkward and jarring. The other way to do this is to just break the scene constantly. You've seen this if you've ever read the ending of Tom Clancy's longer books. The scenes get very choppy, and it only works at all because Clancy's POV is damned-near Observer anyway and he's spent hundreds of pages setting everything up. A less extreme version happens towards the end of Stephen King's Salem's Lot where there are a series of very short scenes in which we see the various townspeople turning into vampires. It's almost like a montage. Almost.

Way, way, way back in the Attention Budget post, I brought up the idea that scene breaks cause you to burn through your reader's attention a little bit faster. You can't just drop into a scene and then quick-cut away. You have to enter the scene, you have to orient the reader in it, you have to establish the relevant characters and scene geography, and then after you've gotten through whatever narrative business you came for, you have to exit the scene gracefully. Every time you do this, you are introducing a non-trivial amount of cognitive load.

Caveat injurer*, but Orson Scott Card understood this pretty well. There's a chapter in Ender's Game that starts out in Ender's POV and follows it into a conversation with Bean. Then the POV follows Bean after Ender leaves the room. It's very subtly committing the sin of head-hopping, that is, breaking POV without a scene transition. This was a conscious choice that Card made in order to make the scene work. He could have used a scene break, but he felt that doing that without actually transitioning to another scene would be jarring to the reader, whereas the head-hopping would probably go unnoticed since he doesn't go deep into the characters' heads very often. Cognitive load diminishes the reading experience, so these things need to be used judiciously. The benefit of the scene break needs to outweigh the cost.

*[I acknowledge that the creator of this work is controversial/problematic and I do not endorse their problematic beliefs or actions, but the work is a cultural touchstone so we're talking about it anyway. That's right, I'm still trying to make "fetch" happen.]

Now, if you do the inter-scene transitions smoothly enough it's a pretty small cognitive load, but it can add up very quickly. Don't forget that in the Attention Budget model, you get diminishing returns, meaning that the more you do it, the faster it's going to irritate the reader. This is why I brought up Victor Milàn's The Dinosaur Lords up at the top, because it really drove this concept home for me. The constant scene shifting introduced so much cognitive load that it was impossible to ignore it. Nay, it was impossible to not stay low-key mad about it. The scene breaks were unmotivated, haphazard, and far too frequent, and it was exhausting. And it is 100% true that I decided to eschew scene breaks after that. Was I being petty? Yes... well, not entirely.

You see, around this time I was also reading George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, and I hadn't gotten to book 4 yet, so I was still pretty enamored with the whole thing. And one of the interesting facets of those books is the way Martin structures his chapters. They have a single character POV and there are no scene breaks in the text. This is not to say that the chapters don't cover multiple scenes, but the transitions between them are done entirely via transition in the text. Since the POV never breaks, there's no need to have a break in the text. This means Martin doesn't have to completely exit or enter scenes except at the start and end of the chapter. It makes it all flow more smoothly. Caveat injurer, but the Harry Potter books also do these seamless scene transitions quite well, especially the shorter early books. A single chapter can span weeks or months of time but still feel narratively coherent.

Oh, and this is probably a separate post entirely, but not having those breaks also makes it work more cleanly as an audiobook.

Martin's series has been dubbed "literary fantasy," and I think it's an apt descriptor--not because of the quality or floridity of the prose, but because of the way the narrative is structured. Since scenes are joined by text transitions rather than scene breaks, they become less discrete ("discrete" meaning distinct or separated, not "discreet" meaning prudent or modest--lord knows there ain't a whole of of that in these tomes). This means that there are more time overlaps between chapters, but that's fine because prose handles this really well. Unlike movies, where it generally needs to feel like scenes are playing out in real time and in chronological order, books can play much faster and looser with chronology.

Additionally, the story was crafted with its literary structure in mind. If you think about the Battle of Blackwater Rush in A Storm of Swords, it's not composed as one big scene with lots of stuff happening in it. It's told across three POVs that are largely isolated from each other and all doing different things in parallel. Depicting the battle this way is a choice that would have been made during the planning and blocking of the scene. It might have even factored into things like the layout and surrounding geography of the keep where the battle is taking place. The entire book is crafted this way, to play specifically to the strengths of prose rather than to accommodate a story that might have been conceived with a more visual medium in mind.

Or, as I like to gently remind new writers that I'm critiquing, we should be writing books, not novelizations of the movies in our heads. To me, scene breaks feel like a concession to people being acclimated to visual storytelling. Do they work? Sure, but I think avoiding them is cleaner and provides a more engaging reading experience. So it's something I've elected to un-learn, and then I re-taught myself how to construct scenes and chapters more-or-less from the ground up.

Next week, tune in to hear (ahem) why you should be writing for audio...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.