Saturday, February 26, 2011

Chapter breaks and pacing

Today, another thrilling episode from Erica's Writing Epiphany Files. Call me slow, but hey, I'm still learning. I'm just doing it in full public view :)

This week, I have figured out chapter breaks. Ta-da! Chapter breaks are about pacing. More specifically, they're about the illusion of pace.

In fact, pace itself is an illusion. The events in the story are what they are, whether it takes 10 pages or 200 to tell them. But we can slow down or speed up the action in the reader's head, according to the effect we want.

We use a number of tools for this. Short or long sentences, simple or complex. Choppy or smooth word rhythm. Paragraph breaks -- shorter is generally faster, though a long paragraph can be intense and gather momentum, and short paragraphs can also slow the action down if you use them right.

And the chapter break. I'm talking about the one that comes in the middle of a scene, where there's no change in situation or setting or point of view It's just there. Why?

To create a hook. To make the reader want to read on. See, I just did it then, with the paragraph break.

Sure, but how does starting a new chapter achieve that? The words and events will be the same, right?

Yeah. But that white space does strange things inside the reader's head. They anticipate. They turn the page (or flick it, now we're e-friendly). It creates the illusion that the story is going faster. But to do that, you've gotta get your hook right. Where can you cut your chapter for maximum effect?

I've been studying them. Some authors are great at it. J.R. Ward, for one, in her angels series. They come in two basic flavours.

There's the holy shit, I can't believe that just happened! hook. Your character does/says/learns/decides something wild or unexpected or dangerous, that will have grave consequences. OMG, what did you do? Cut.

And there's the holy shit, what's gonna happen next? hook. Your character is about to do/say/learn/decide something wild or unexpected or dangerous. He's in a serious jam, and something's about to give. Crap, how will he get out of this? Cut. Also appearing as the will-she-or-won't-she? break. She won't really do that, will she?

Sometimes, you have the choice: do I cut before the bombshell, or after? There's no firm answer to that. Depends on how big the bomb is, and who's got the most to lose.

But be careful. Cut like this too often, and your reader will get wise to you. And a long string of short chapters does no one any good. So save it for the big moments.

And just for me, don't get tacky: if you're gonna cut in the middle of a love scene, something spectacular and emotional better be happening :)

So what about you? Do you like reading cut chapters? Adore the little cliffhangers along the way? Or are you wise to those silly writers' tricks, and just want to get on with the story? 


  1. Cool article, Erica. Knowing writers, including me, do this stuff means if it's getting late and I don't want to be kept awake reading till oh-dark-thirty, I stop reading in the MIDDLE of a chapter.

  2. Hee, how come this darned post box will let me be anonymous - I could be an axe murderer, though I'm not, yet it won't let me post my URL. Valerie Parv (and proud of it)

  3. A little change up (in pace--even perceived pace) shakes things up, keeps the mind active. As a writer, I pay attention to it and alter wording and breaks where I think it's appropriate. As a reader, done well, it keeps me involved in the story.

  4. This is great info! Thanks. I do like the cliffhanger as long as it leads to something else. Don't drag the purpose of one chapter on and on...

  5. I love a cliffhanger. I also believe the pace has to slow down at times so the reader can catch their breath. Overwhelming the reader is not a good idea.