Units of Fiction I: Mechanics and Pacing
A discussion among my fellow writers of chapter length and where to break (or not) got me reflecting on how little writing advice there is for thinking about this — and then from there I fell down a rabbit hole of realizing how even less advice there is for the sub-units below the chapter, the scene and the paragraph. (Or the higher-level units, the part or the book in a series . . . but that’s going to have to be a separate bit of pondering.)
This is stuff we’re apparently expected to learn by trial and error. You write stuff, and you notice — somehow — that breaking in certain places works better than others, and so you improve. Nobody ever really taught me how to think about these issues, beyond a few very basic mechanical points, and so as a consequence I’m not even sure how to articulate what it is that I do, even though I’m relatively pleased with how I’m doing it. This is the first in a series of posts that constitute an attempt to figure that out by talking through it out loud (so to speak), and I hope it will be of use to other people.
Note: what I have to say here is geared toward fiction writing, but certain aspects of it would apply to nonfiction as well, whether that be a blog post or an academic article.
Organizing it is a little bit hard, though, because I want to talk about all three of paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, and some of the points apply to all of them, but some don’t. Which means it’s not ideal to separate them, but it also isn’t ideal to tackle them all at once. I’m going to do a little from Column A, a little from Column B; I’ll start out with talking about the aspects where they’re the closely related, then break it up for where they diverge. Which also means this is going to be a multi-part discussion — four parts in total, with one being posted each day. (Edit: Part II; Part III; Part IV.)
So with that context out of the way . . . in thinking about this, I’ve come around to the opinion that there are three major factors at play in how we decide to break up the units of our tale. Those are: mechanics, pacing, and attention. And of those three, I think attention is both the most subtle and the most important.
Mechanics are fairly straightforward. We probably all got taught that when you change speakers in your dialogue, you should start a new paragraph — though even there, this rule can be bent. If all you’re doing is this:
“Shall we?” I asked, and he said, “Let’s.”
Then you can probably get away with not separating them (though fussy purists will make faces at you).
Similarly, we probably all got taught that if you aren’t writing in a deliberately omniscient point of view, then you should put in a scene break when you switch perspectives. I fudged this one in my first published novel, because I had a scene where it was very right for the reader to see what was happening in the heads of both of the main characters, but that was a special case; by and large, failure to separate points of view gets labeled “head-hopping” and is seen as a bad thing. (Though I’ll note that this, like everything to do with viewpoint, is purely an agreed-upon convention. As long as the reader doesn’t get confused, there’s no reason head-hopping couldn’t be a valid technique — and I believe in some corners of the fiction world, nobody bats an eyelash at it.)
Chapters are more flexible in this regard. The only mechanical constraints tend to be the ones you create for yourself: you don’t have to start a new chapter when you switch POV, but if that’s how you’ve done the first half of the book, there’s a bit of inertia pushing you to go on doing that. Only a bit, though; if you have a good reason to break that pattern, you can. A slightly stiffer constraint tends to be average length: if all of your chapters have been in the ballpark of four thousand words long, then one that’s only fifteen hundred or one that balloons up to seven thousand will feel out of place. But even then, sometimes you want that out-of-place feeling. I deliberately threw a very short chapter into the final book of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, in part to startle the reader.
I had other reasons for doing that, though. Which leads us into the next consideration here.
Pacing is something of an “eye of the beholder” deal. On the level of sentences, I’ve often seen the received wisdom that short sentences make the action seem faster, but my experience as a reader is that the opposite is true: since a period signals the end of a thought and a pause before the next sentence, lots of short sentences in a row make me feel like a choke-leash is jerking me to a halt every few words. I talked about this in Writing Fight Scenes:
Penthesilea charged at her enemy. She raised her sword. She chopped down at his head. He dodged. His sword cut along her side. She cried out in pain. Then she shoved him back with her shield. He stumbled. She ran him through.
Whereas longer sentences pull the reader along with less of a pause — up to a point, at least. When the sentence gets so long and complex that the reader has to stop and reorient themselves before the end, you’ve gone too far. (Eighteenth-century English writers, I am looking at you.) I suspect this becomes very noticeable in audio, where the narrator is controlling the pace of delivery. Also, note that short sentences seriously limit your options for how they’re structured: when there’s only one or two clauses, you can’t provide much variety.
When it comes to paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, though, I can see a better argument for “short goes fast” — again, up to a point. If every paragraph is a single sentence, I get the choke-leash effect once more. If every paragraph is the same length, then there’s no rhythmic variation, much like when every sentence is the same length. And I remember reading a book where the scene structure became absolute garbage, because the writer wasn’t thinking like a novelist. We were in the POV of a character clinging to the back of a truck while a monster attacked; then there was a scene break, followed by a single paragraph of POV from the driver of the truck, slamming on the brakes; then another scene break, and back to the guy clinging to the outside of the truck.
That isn’t prose fiction. That’s the author imagining the blockbuster movie they really hope someone will make out of their book.
But it’s true that if a scene is short, then the author isn’t leading us gently by the hand into the setting of the moment and exploring all the ramifications of what happens there. They’re getting in and out fast, hitting only the key elements in order to keep things moving forward. (Whether they’re doing so effectively is a separate question.) This can be a good thing to do as you reach a climactic section, and want the feeling of a fast-moving tale.
Similarly, short chapters serve a good purpose in luring the reader onward. The end of a chapter is a natural place to put a book down and take a break, but if each chapter is short, it’s easy to be tempted by the thought of just one more, because it won’t take long to read. On the other hand . . . the end of a chapter is a natural place to put a book down and take a break, so the more frequently those come, the more opportunities you’re offering the reader to walk away. They’re coming up for air, instead of staying immersed for longer periods of time. It’s a balancing act.
One which will probably be guided in part by what you’re writing. I haven’t done a statistical survey on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to find that thrillers, urban fantasy, and other such subgenres tend toward shorter chapters and scenes and even paragraphs, while (say) secondary world epic fantasy tends longer on all three fronts. Longer units give you more room to build stuff up, which is actively necessary when you need to orient your reader in an unfamiliar world. You can’t lean on reader familiarity as a shorthand, and incluing — the delicate salting of exposition throughout the text, rather than dropping it in efficient but infodumpy wodges — winds up requiring more words to pull off.
And that starts taking this in the direction of attention. Which is the point where I start needing to discuss paragraphs, scenes, and chapters individually, because what kind of attention you’re trying to manage and how best to do that becomes meaningfully different . . . different enough, in fact, that each of them will be getting its own post. For those, tune in for the next few days!