By: Patrick Hester
Hi there! My name is Patrick Hester. I’m a PPW member, have taught at Write Brains and PPWC, and volunteer as a board member for Pikes Peak Writers. I’m also an author, leaning toward science fiction and fantasy, though I have dabbled in all sorts of fiction. I have a critique partner named JT Evans. You might know him as both a contributor to this blog, and as President of Pikes Peak Writers. One of the kind things he and others have said to me numerous times is how well I do scene and chapter breaks. That means a lot to me, because I work hard on them. I want my readers to turn the page and keep reading, not take a break.
The secret to doing that well? The answer might surprise you.
Two of my favorite things: comic books and Classic Doctor Who.
Now, I know that some of you are rolling your eyes and grabbing for your mouse to close the browser window. I’m gonna encourage you to stick around. Even if comic books and Doctor Who aren’t your thing, I assure you these two things are not as strange as they may seem on the surface. And the lessons they teach can impact your writing and ability to hook your readers and keep them engaged. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
One of the most popular forms of storytelling is the serial, which utilizes cliffhangers to keep the reader, or watcher, coming back for more. Comic books and Classic Doctor Who both used this structure quite well, and instilled in me and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of fans worldwide, the same sense of wonder, excitement and anticipation at what will come next. Will the Doctor and Sarah Jane escape the Daleks this time, or is it all over? How will Spider-Man manage to beat Doc Ock and pay his rent on time?
Okay, I admit the second one is a little odd, but that was part of the fun. Allow me to delve a little deeper into this and bring it around to your writing.
Comic books have a formula to them. So do Classic Doctor Who episodes—the stuff before the recent relaunch under Russell T. Davies.
But let’s stick with comics for a moment. The page of a comic book is designed to guide you through the story, panel by panel, and make you turn the page. Here’s an illustration of what I’m talking about.
Now, comic book pages have become quite sophisticated through the years, but the premise is still the same. Pages are split into ‘panels’. The lower right hand corner of the page is: The Hook. Some question is asked here, some action is taken, maybe a fight begins, or an explosion, or someone ‘off screen’ suddenly says something. It’s such a hook the reader must turn the page to see what happens next.
Which brings us to the upper left hand corner of the page: The Reveal. This is the resolution of whatever happened in that last panel on the previous page. It’s the reward for having turned the page, and it satisfies readers, justifies their attention and the fact they kept going. And it restarts the cycle for the new page.
If you’ve ever read a comic book, you’ll notice that the last page almost always ends on such a hook—an unanswered question, a surprise attack or mystery of some sort. All intended to bring readers back in a month to see what happened, learn the truth and keep moving forward.
Let’s put it into context for the fiction writer, because it’s a powerful tool for us to have.
What makes for a good scene break or chapter end? When some writers start out, they see chapters as having a beginning, middle and end— a resolution. That’s not horrible, but if your chapters end in resolution without asking new questions or revealing new dangers, you’re giving your reader an out and an ending. They can now stop reading, take a break, grab food, watch TV, scratch the cat behind the ear, hug the significant other across the shoulder, or maybe walk the dog.
That’s not what you want to happen. You want the cat to be singing its mournful song, the significant other to feel abandoned, and the dog to leave a ‘surprise’ on the kitchen floor, all because your readers couldn’t tear their eyes away from your story, your book.
Think about the last book you read that you simply couldn’t put down. The one that drove you nuts. Every free, waking moment of your day, you longed to spend with your nose planted between those sweet-smelling pages. When you couldn’t do that, couldn’t read it, you were fidgety and anxious. Kept finding your mind wandering back to the story, the characters, and where you left them— precariously balanced on the edge between life and death, happiness and despair. And when you were reading it, and came to the end of a chapter, you took a breath, turned the page and told yourself, “Just one more chapter and then I’ll stop.” Only you didn’t stop. You kept going.
Why? What was it about that book that made it impossible to put down?
Most likely, it was some form of what I describe above. Which can also be called ‘beats’. The author used them and played you like a virtuoso, pulsing at just the right times, luring you in and keeping you so focused that anything short of continuing on was unacceptable.
That’s powerful writing, and you are just as capable of it as that author you were reading. Understanding how the author did it is half the battle. Translating that understanding to your own writing means breaking it down. Like with the page of a comic book.
Let’s be honest. You can’t design the pages of your book the same way you can a comic. It won’t work. Or, it could work, but your publisher would hate you because it would involve a lot of complicated layout, design and probably some PhD level math. Instead, think about the structure of your book as a whole, see how it flows, how the sections and chapters break the way you have it now, and how they could break with a little tweak.
See? I told you’d I’d tie all of this together.
• The Doctor and his companion arrive on a planet.
• There’s something wrong with the TARDIS requiring them to spend some time here.
• They begin to explore.
• They encounter the locals, and get split up.
• One or both discover there’s more to this place than they originally thought, and something isn’t quite right.
• Suddenly, either the Doctor, or his companion’s life is in jeopardy!
• Queue music.
Trust me, as soon as the music started, you were up and out of your seat shouting, “No” because you knew you’d have to wait to see what happens next. In the UK, that meant a week. In the US? You’d have to wait through a pledge drive bit and then they’d get on with the next part of the episode. Not horrible, unless you absolutely couldn’t wait to see what happens next.
And there it is. That reaction we want as writers. Getting it is as simple, and difficult, as applying the idea of the cliffhanger to your writing.
To get the reader to keep going when the chapter ends, raise the tension and the stakes for the characters. If you’ve just resolved something, drop in the next thing on the list of crap that’s happening, or about to happen to them. They got out of the haunted forest and to the house on the hill, but that house isn’t the haven of safety they thought it was… They stopped the bomb from blowing up Air Force One, but something is still beeping… The hero ran the villain through with the great sword and, spinning, lopped off his head, which is still talking from its perch on the throne…
Learning to play with these beats and rhythms starts by emulating what you’ve read and seen in your own writing. Remember that book I mentioned above? The one you couldn’t put down? Why couldn’t you put it down? What did that author do, and how can you apply it to your own writing? Analyze and adapt.
For me, I almost always have some sort of cliffhanger at the end of my chapters, large or small (sometimes you have to let your readers take a breath. A short one) so they can turn the page and say, “Just one more chapter…”
About the Author: Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and 2013 Hugo Award Winner for Best Fanzine (Editor - SF Signal), and 2014 Hugo Award Winner for Best Fancast. He lives in Colorado, writes science fiction and fantasy, and can usually be found hanging out on his Twitter feed. His debut novel, SAMANTHA KANE: INTO THE FIRE is forthcoming from WordFire Press. His short fiction can be found in the anthologies Space Battles: Full-Throttle Space Tales #6 and An Uncommon Collection, as well as the eBooks Conversations with my Cat, Witchcraft & Satyrs, Consumption, Cahill's Homecoming (Cord Cahill Serials Book 1) and Cahill's Unfinished Business (Cord Cahill Serials Book 2). His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards, and the SF Signal podcast was nominated for a 2012, 2013, and 2014 Hugo Award. He writes a twice-monthly column for the Kirkus Reviews blog, for his own site atfmb.com, SF Signal (now closed) and Functional Nerds.