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  1. #1
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Chapter Formatting and Scene Breaks

    Some friends recently expressed interest in one of my trunked novels from years ago and I'm considering dusting it off and sending it out to them. I have been looking over it this morning and I notice comments from a reviewer back then was that my chapter formatting was confusing to them.

    For those familiar with Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards series, I based my chapter formatting on the format he uses in those books. In his latest Republic of Thieves the story is divided among point of views and events in the distant past and the present. The "villains" are thrown in on a few occasions but, mostly, the view points stick with the main characters. Lynch organized this book in Acts/Parts, then Chapters, then numbered Sections/Scenes. So, if written without any of the story in between, these would look like

    [Act/Part] I
    (title)

    Chapter One
    (title)

    [Section/Scene] 1

    The Acts/Parts are in Roman numerals, the Chapter numbers are spelled out, and the Section/Scene numbers are in Western numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.

    My old story has the same formatting, only without the Acts/Parts. I have two main point of views, though others do begin to enter the story later on, and in most cases each chapter is devoted to one view point and the next chapter is the other character. My chapters are about 20 pages in length, with an average of 6 sections/scenes in each of them.

    I felt this formatting easy to follow with Lynch's work. Though he also includes "Interludes" between the so called "Chapters"--the word Interlude denoting chapters concerning events in the past and Chapter being the present--and my story does not have any switching back and forth in time like this, only time passing in a forward direction.

    My question, do others have trouble with this kind of Chapter/Scene format? What other ways have you seen this done?

  2. #2
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Wow - I've never read any of Lynch's work and that may be a good reason not to!

    I never pay attention to chapter breaks. To me, as a reader, they just get in the way of the story. Though, to be fair, I do use the end of chapters as convenient places to stop reading - if I'm not that into the story. If I'm into the story, then I just put the book down whenever I can no longer keep my eyes open (or I have to go do something).

  3. #3
    Registered User StephenPorter's Avatar
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    Yeah, that sounds rather convoluted to me, and to little or no purpose. If there were some good justification for it, if it actually helped clarify the situation, that would be a different story, but I don't see how there wouldn't be better ways to clarify the scenes. (That's not to say that there isn't one, just that I don't know what that would be.) It might make more sense to start a chapter with a number, then the name of the POV for that scene. That would add clarity to a story that juggles multiple POVs without cluttering up the chapter numbering system.

    I don't really think it's hard to understand, but as with anything else in the writing process, if there's no purpose for it, it's maybe better to cut it out.

  4. #4
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    If there was only one scene break in each of my chapters, I wouldn't bother with this. I would have a couple of empty lines, an ellipses, swirling or curving lines. But I have several scene breaks. Each chapter is organized around a central theme, idea, event, etc.

    On the other hand, I look at GRRM and how his chapters are named for the POV character. It's a good idea, and I like that for a large cast of a dozen characters. But I have 3, later up to about 6 (I think). At 6 I could understand doing it that way. But with only 2 as most of this book is told with, it seems a bit insulting to the reader that they cannot figure out in the chapter's first paragraph just who the POV character is. Though, I guess the same could be said about numbering the scenes, so.

  5. #5
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Nila -- you should read Lynch's work; I think you might like it.

    What Lynch does in his sec world fantasy series -- and very successfully in the market over three books -- is a parallel timeline structure. In the first book, for instance, the main story takes place in the present, when a group of young con artists are dealing with an increasingly dangerous situation involving everyone from the nobility of the city to the main players of the criminal underworld to powerful mages from out of town. And then intermittently he has flashbacks to the past when the con artists were children and being trained by their mentor, which gives you new information about the world and main characters. It's perfectly easy to follow and not an unusual setup for a novel or a movie or t.v. show. The Acts/Parts organization is very common in SFF and is simply a way to organize chapters, coming from the original theater structure of acts and the tradition in literature of multi-part novels -- it inserts a slightly longer pause break and usually has to do with the chronology of the story. Neil Gaiman, Susannah Clarke, China Meville if I'm remembering right, lots of authors have Parts/Act sections, usually on large books.

    Red Mage is not doing any of that, so I don't really understand why the comparison to Lynch's series, except perhaps if RM is numbering the scenes, which Lynch does simply as scene breaks (what in other books might just be a couple of blank lines, or a couple of blank lines and a fleur-de-lys or other curlique; instead he just uses a number, again as a nod to theater which has a slight role in the series.) RM is simply doing a multi-pov third person limited narrative, no parallel timelines, which is as common as dirt. (Not that there's anything wrong with dirt.)

    So is it hard for readers to process having different character povs in a narrative -- no. So I think I'm missing the actual question. If the issue is numbering the scenes, you don't have to do that unless you like it as a way to do the scene breaks. Or are you asking whether you should have scene breaks at all, RM? Given that scene breaks are also as common as dirt and readers process them largely unconsciously, the answer to that one would again be no.

  6. #6
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KatG View Post
    So is it hard for readers to process having different character povs in a narrative -- no. So I think I'm missing the actual question. If the issue is numbering the scenes, you don't have to do that unless you like it as a way to do the scene breaks. Or are you asking whether you should have scene breaks at all, RM? Given that scene breaks are also as common as dirt and readers process them largely unconsciously, the answer to that one would again be no.
    You are right on all counts, Kat. And I like scene breaks, both as a writer and a reader. They are good places to take a break, get some food, or allow life to interrupt.

    The problem my readers had was in numbered chapters and numbered scenes/sections. I have

    Chapter Fifteen: Threats
    1

    The city lay like........
    My readers found it difficult to interpret the numbered scenes to be scenes and not chapters. However, I am remembering now that, at the time, I was not able to find many SFFH friends to read this story. So while my readers for this story were readers, they did not and still don't, read a lot of SFFH.

  7. #7
    sf-icionado / horr-orator Andrew Leon Hudson's Avatar
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    If I saw chapters with such labels as -
    Chapter One: A Cold, Dark, Stormy Knight
    1

    Yaddayaddayadda

    2
    More yaddayadda
    - I think I'd read without the slightest concern. It doesn't really matter that I know they represent scenes specifically, just that they divide the text as the author wants - provided the reading experience is still engaging.

    When I submitted my novel, I had it labelled using Parts, not Chapters, as the seven main chunks of the book are all quite long, with multiple text breaks for POV changes (which I privately considered to be little chapters within each part). The publisher removed the "Parts" and substituted "Chapters" to be consistent with the series format, which I didn't moan about, but I do think it makes a difference to how a person reacts to what they read; one of my reviewers commented on the annoyingly long chapters, and my guess is that they wouldn't have under the original label system - of course a part is longer than a chapter, stands to reason, etc. etc.
    Last edited by Andrew Leon Hudson; June 29th, 2014 at 03:56 AM.

  8. #8
    Greymane Wilson Geiger's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by N. E. White View Post
    Though, to be fair, I do use the end of chapters as convenient places to stop reading -
    That means the writer's not doing their job.

    And also, to echo Kat, don't make that a reason you don't read Lynch, Nila!

  9. #9
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by RedMage View Post

    The problem my readers had was in numbered chapters and numbered scenes/sections. My readers found it difficult to interpret the numbered scenes to be scenes and not chapters. However, I am remembering now that, at the time, I was not able to find many SFFH friends to read this story. So while my readers for this story were readers, they did not and still don't, read a lot of SFFH.
    It's not a device that is limited to SFFH. It's used in a lot of books. It's less common to number scenes than it used to be, but again, it's just using a number instead of a flourish like those little croissant things that used to be only in books and now we use all over the Internet.

    Your readers were dealing with ms. pages, which are not easy to flip back and forth and the text uses more space and pages. Consequently, when the number 2 popped up on one page, since they were critiquing and not just reading, they had to remember what that 2 signified, which distracted them. In a printed book, it's not an issue, as they'll barely glance at the numbers while they process the text while reading. So, for the ms. text, put the word "Section" or "Scene" with the number, as in "Scene 2, Scene 6." If the book is published and printed, you just take the word "Scene" out and leave the number in the print version.

    For instance, what a lot of writers I've worked with do is number their ms. by chapter, not in total, like the printed version will be. Each chapter starts with page 1 and goes to the end page of the chapter and the next chapter starts with page 1. So in doing developmental notes to them, I had to list it as p. 4:5 -- the fifth page in Chapter 4. That can be actually easier for them to track than if it's just p. 68, since they are often revising and changing pages, which is why a lot of them do it that way. But it does mean that you have to be very clear on what chapter you are on in critiquing, since the page numbers repeat. But it's not that hard if you're paying attention. Maybe they weren't really paying attention.

  10. #10
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    I had not thought of the problem as one of manuscript pages, Kat. Now that you point that out, it makes a lot of sense why they felt that way. I think I will list each scene as you suggest, Scene 3 and the such. And it is good to know that flourishes, numbers, whathaveyou between scenes is not just a SFFH thing. As for the page numbers, that is quite interesting. I might just do that with manuscripts I am more serious about just now. At the moment, this book we are talking about is more of a curiosity as some have expressed interest in it. If I do end up publishing it, or even returning to seriously work on it, it won't be for a while.

  11. #11
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    As we've discussed in the past, when you get feedback from readers, the reasons they think there is a problem may not be the reasons they are actually having the problem, (even if they are a very experienced author themselves,) and what they consider a problem may simply be a personal preference that is at odds with what you are trying to do in the story. So with each piece of feedback you get, you have to consider, 1) how real is the problem -- are there actual weaknesses, inconsistencies, or confusion, and 2) why is the person having this reaction. (And you do this even if it's two people or more having the same reaction, because they may be having the reaction for different reasons, some of which may be useless to you.)

    To deal with #2, it is helpful to ask the reader more and more specific questions, instead of insisting that the reader figure out why something feels flat, or was confusing. Because a lot of the time, a critique point may simply be that the reader wasn't paying attention combined with something that was niggling them. And a lot of time, they describe something vague, and the source may be coming from another direction, but looking at specific examples and even exact words can help.

    To give an example, a friend had a stray dog show up in the later part of the novel that played a sub-plot role in the story, to bring it in line with the loose serial series the book was a part of. The editors wanted the dog to show up earlier, which wasn't a bad point, but they came up with this whole storyline for the dog including new scenes which would have meant substantially changing the plot and it was far too late in the game to do that. But she didn't need to do that. Instead, the dog just made brief appearances in two already existing scenes (and runs away,) and then made his full entrance where he had before. The editors were thrilled. It had just bugged them that the dog, which they liked, wasn't around sooner. So the consideration is #1, how real is the problem. In this case, it was a valid point that readers might want the dog earlier. And then #2, why were the editors having the problem? It wasn't because the dog needed a whole brand new storyline. It was just because the dog wasn't seen. So all that had to be done was show the dog a bit more.

    If the author had decided that she didn't want the dog to come earlier, the editors would have accepted it. If the author decided that she did want to change the plot substantially and build half the story around the dog (who had been added in from the original plan,) that would have been okay too, except that she didn't in this case have a lot of time to do that.

    Formatting and other stylistic techniques -- if you see them in a published book, especially a bestseller, then you don't really have to worry that it's a problem.

  12. #12
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KatG View Post
    As we've discussed in the past, when you get feedback from readers, the reasons they think there is a problem may not be the reasons they are actually having the problem, (even if they are a very experienced author themselves,) and what they consider a problem may simply be a personal preference that is at odds with what you are trying to do in the story. So with each piece of feedback you get, you have to consider, 1) how real is the problem -- are there actual weaknesses, inconsistencies, or confusion, and 2) why is the person having this reaction. (And you do this even if it's two people or more having the same reaction, because they may be having the reaction for different reasons, some of which may be useless to you.)

    To deal with #2, it is helpful to ask the reader more and more specific questions, instead of insisting that the reader figure out why something feels flat, or was confusing. Because a lot of the time, a critique point may simply be that the reader wasn't paying attention combined with something that was niggling them. And a lot of time, they describe something vague, and the source may be coming from another direction, but looking at specific examples and even exact words can help.

    .....

    Formatting and other stylistic techniques -- if you see them in a published book, especially a bestseller, then you don't really have to worry that it's a problem.
    Thanks Kat, this is reassuring. I think I will put the word [Scene] in front of the scene numbers, just like that in brackets, when I send it to these readers. But I have seen it in a published book, one I like a lot even, so I don't think the [Scene] in front of the scene number will be necessary for the final version.

    I am getting better at asking the follow up questions and really trying to delve into my beta readers' problems with my stories. This particular story was one of the first I had others read and I was in the midst of a months long crisis over it. I did not know enough about how to handle feedback to to do much more than ask a few big follow up questions and I certainly didn't know that I should continue the conversation on each of the responses I got to those. I know better now and have been making lists of questions as I write the first drafts of other, more recent books and, when I do send those, I have mentally and emotionally prepared myself for negative responses and how to engage those and use my readers to help find a solution to the problem.

    Thanks for the encouragement, everyone! I'll let you know what this group of readers thinks of my numbering the scenes and the story in general.

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    Quote Originally Posted by N. E. White View Post
    I never pay attention to chapter breaks. To me, as a reader, they just get in the way of the story. Though, to be fair, I do use the end of chapters as convenient places to stop reading.
    I'm sorry to disagree but I pay very close attention to chapter breaks. I do use scenes to indicate a minor change in either the timeline or the location and sometimes even the POV but I don't label the scenes - just use a couple of blank lines to separate them.
    But the chapter breaks I work out very closely. There are a convenient place for readers to stop reading so my aim whenever I can, is to make them not want to stop reading. "What happens next?" "I've got to read the next chapter." Those are the reactions that I am trying to achieve (with varying degrees of success) so I do pay a lot of attention to the chapter breaks.

  14. #14
    What's wrong with lots of chapters? I found Erickson's Malazan series nearly unreadable because the chapters were so long, and I would try Pratchett again if he had any chapters at all.

    IIRC Lynch numbers his scenes within the chapters, which is odd, but not too confusing. It marks a change of character or location within the larger chapter. As the chapters usually alternate between a "present" narrative and one featuring the earlier days of the characters, it works well as a subdivision. Also helps those of us who snatch reading whenever we can to be able to read to the end of a scene, and stop.

    But as Kat has said, it's up to you. I'd think about why your chapters are chapters, and whether breaking down into scenes works well. I wouldn't put the word 'scene' in them, just numbered. Make sure they do mark some kind of end/change/ in the narrative.

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by Wilson Geiger View Post
    That means the writer's not doing their job.
    The point of a chapter is to be a convenient section to read and then stop. Obviously you want to give the reader a reason to read the next chapter, but most can't read 500 pages in one go.

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