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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Six: Dramatic Breaks

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Six: Dramatic Breaks


Key points: A dramatic break makes the reader want to go onto the next scene. Use cliffhangers, a tense lack of resolution, a sense of satisfaction, emotional ploys -- and mix it up. Pay attention to your genre -- thrillers like cliffhangers, epic fantasy prefers satisfaction. Be aware of the sense of time. Dan parks his flying car outside. Satisfying installments keep people coming back. Scenes need to progress the character or the plot to satisfy readers. Let the reader know the scene is over -- walk out the door, step into the street, etc.

[Brandon] Today, we are going to talk about dramatic breaks. Howard, tell us about dramatic breaks.
[Howard] Um...
[Dan] Come on, Howard. Tell us about dramatic breaks.
[Howard] This is one of those times where the words that you are using don't really connect to a concept that I think I understand.
[Brandon] That's funny, because you do it all the time. In fact, you do it every day. What I'm talking about with dramatic breaks is learning how to break your story into scenes and little pieces in such a way that...
[Dan] Or frames, per se.
[Brandon] Or frames. Particularly, this is relating to our old adage of "in late, out early." Specifically, the out early. We're going to talk about ending scenes. What do you look for from ending a scene, how do you do it well?
[Dan] With that in mind, now tell us, Howard.
[Brandon] Well, I just told you what a dramatic break is.
[Howard] You told me what it is.

[Brandon] What are you looking for from the last panel of one of your comic strips?
[Howard] I'm looking for two things. I'm looking for a punchline, and I'm looking for a point at which either the story here stopped being interesting -- so I can transition some place else -- or the continuity is going to be completely seamless when I pick it up with the next strip. I try and frame it in seven-day sequences. But often, I'll break midweek because I realize this point right here is where it stopped being interesting for 20 minutes for these characters and I need to jump across the building, jump across the galaxy.
[Brandon] You stop right before it stops being interesting?
[Howard] Yeah.
[Brandon] That's an easy way to put it, I suppose.

[Brandon] Dan, what are you looking for from the end of a scene?
[Dan] The easy answer to that question is something that will make the reader want to go on to the next scene.
[Brandon] The easy response to that easy answer, to make you struggle, is how do you do that?
[Dan] How do you do that? In my genre, horror and thriller, that is often with a cliffhanger or some other kind of tense lack of resolution.
[Brandon] I'm going to put you on the spot then, and ask you a couple of things. Number one, how do you keep it from getting old? When I read thrillers that I think are poorly written, it gets old very quickly for me. I keep thinking, "Oh, yeah, another cliffhanger. Another..." Bam, bam, bam. I get tired of it. How do you keep it fresh?
[Dan] What I did in the Serial Killer series is, I would try to pick two or three emotions that I wanted the reader to have. One of them being anxiety, one of them that I used was, "Oh, that's sad." Things like that, and then vary them. So at the end of this chapter, "Oh, no, I'm very anxious, I want to get to the next thing." The other one is, "Oh, no, that's a horrible way..." Fear is another good one, "I'm very scared." Picking those different things and just aiming for the different... there's not a lot of difference between fear and anxiety, but it is there. It's enough of a difference that it doesn't get old, it doesn't fall into a rut.
[Brandon] When people do this poorly... I think new writers do it poorly, I think sometimes they overdo it. I think that they feel like they want to have a cliffhanger so badly, that they always end on the exact same emotional state or exact same level of tension, not letting their book go through a natural progression. If you're always at a ten, the ten becomes a five. It becomes the average.
[Dan] You become very desensitized to the tension.
[Brandon] I think you do a very good job of this. I guess it's because you buried the emotion.

[Howard] The other new writer mistake... and I see it from old writers as well... is to substitute "and then something happened" for a cliffhanger. Where you're moving along and all of a sudden at the end of the chapter, something happens.
[Brandon] You're actually giving them a bit of the next scene.
[Howard] Yeah, a bit of the next scene. And the next chapter begins and everybody is reacting to what happened. It's not a dramatic pause, or a dramatic break...
[Brandon] That works sometimes.
[Howard] It works sometimes. But I would save that for late Act Two, early Act Three.
[Dan] The big problem with that is that the dramatic arc of your chapters will not work. No chapter has a good arc when you do that.
[Brandon] Exactly. And that makes it unsatisfying. In fact, one of the things... my response to my own question would be, and I write in a different genre, listeners, keep this in mind... but I am looking for the last page of a scene to be satisfying, usually. Rather than... I don't cliffhanger as much as Dan does. It works very well in his genre. But for me, I have big chapters. I'm writing epic fantasy. I'm wanting to leave you with a sense of satisfaction that you are learning to know these characters and learning to understand the world and the situation so that you have a sense of enjoyment. Occasionally I will cliffhanger...
[Howard] So Dan's philosophy is "leave them wanting more" and your philosophy is "it is now OK to go get a sandwich."
[Brandon] I'm hoping they're not going to get too many sandwiches. But, yeah, I do want to give the sense that, "Wow, I am really enjoying this." That's the sense I got... someone who does this very well, this more epic sense, is JK Rowling. When I was reading the Harry Potter books, very rarely would I... a chapter in her books has a big arc, and usually between chapters, you've got a big time jump. So you're not jumping immediately to bam bam bam. You get to the end of a chapter and you just say, "Wow, I'm loving this. I want to keep reading." The goal is always to keep people reading, but there are different...
[Howard] You turn the page in a Rowling book and it is now November. It is now Christmas time. This is the Christmas chapter.

[Dan] One of the things you gain from these two different styles is a very different sense of time. You talked about how you want your books to be epic. Ending things on a cliffhanger compresses time a lot. It makes the book seem to go very quickly, like it all takes place in one day.
[Brandon] This is what happens with a lot of thrillers. Dan Brown books are one day.
[Dan] The chapter will end. We have to get outside. Now we have to get to the... whatever.
[Howard] That's one of the reasons that I never finished Dean Koontz's Intensity. When he wrote that book, he wrote it with the intent of compressing time and dragging you through the whole book in one sitting. It was just too much for me, so I put it down.
[Dan] If you tried to end... if you tried to do an epic fantasy where every chapter ended with tension, it would not feel epic.
[Brandon] Also, it would also get very old. If you're talking about stretching things across 300,000 words, it's a very different prospect from doing it across 90,000 words. A 90,000 word book, you can realistically do in one sitting.
[Telephone ringing]
[Brandon] Oh, whose?
[Dan] That's mine.
[Brandon] Wait a minute, wait a minute. The Batphone. OK. Dramatic break.

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[Howard] Meanwhile, in the Sanderson household...
[Brandon] Very nice, Howard.
[Dan] Very dramatic.
[Howard] That's actually where we left off, so there's straight continuity.
[Dan] But we're in the future now, relative to where we were.
[Brandon] Where are our flying cars?
[Dan] Mine's parked outside.

[Brandon] One thing I've got... I've noticed that there's a sense of a problem with new writers. When they're working on their books and they're looking at breaks, one of the things... They've been raised on TV. Television and movies do their breaks in a very different manner than books do. It's similar to the thriller method but even more exaggerated in a lot of ways. I see authors trying to do this. It's again trying to do something that works very well in television that doesn't work well in books.
[Howard] It works well on television in part because we've been programmed to accept it. My father-in-law was watching television... I guess it was just last night, and a commercial came on. He said, "Yeah, during the commercials I flip around and look and see what else is on." Jerry, what else is on is commercials, because everybody breaks after 12.5 minutes or whatever the time is. That's because of the format they're working within, they're supported by advertising.

[Brandon] Howard, you're working in a different format from either of us.
[Howard] Indeed.
[Brandon] How are you deciding when to time your breaks? Other than just let's not talk about the boring stuff? How do you lead up to a scene change after a couple of strips?
[Howard] Boy, it's tricky because I have to outline what I want to have happen for this chapter or this segment or this arc and I have to know what I want to have happen next. Right now, I am writing the strips for August. I've got combat happening in one place and pursuit happening in another place. To switch between the two, I take the combat scene and ramp the peril up. Oh, no, the good guys don't have a weapon and they're badly outnumbered. Now we're going to cut to the pursuit scene. We cut to the pursuit scene. The pursuit scene runs for two strips and pursuit ends because I can't track people who are now in an air car unless maybe I fly. So we have a fun moment of flight. Then we cut back to the fight scene. We are resolving the problem with the lost weapon. We skipped some of the action that I didn't want to draw because I'm lazy and I hate elephants.
[Brandon] Something else you're doing there. You're trying for breaks that will highlight the humor a lot of times. That's very different from what we are doing.
[Howard] Yes. That's very different... it is and it isn't. You said you want to deliver a chapter where at the end of the chapter, people are satisfied. I need to deliver daily updates where people don't come back because they had to see what happens next... because those people will stop coming to the site and will read two weeks at a time or a month at a time, and I am at risk of losing those readers. I want people to come back every day because darn it, this installment is satisfying. I try to put things in these installments where the wordplay or the pictures or something are so clever or so artistic... so iconic... that people will read it two or three times and just be happy they showed up that day. Those strips are few and far between, but...
[Dan] I think that's so important, especially for webcomics. Any webcomic listeners out there, please make sure that each installment is satisfying. The number one reason that I have stopped reading many of the comics that I have stopped reading is because I can't get enough of the story in the installment that they dole out.
[Howard] The long form webcomics suffer I believe in part... in large measure because the updates they provide are "this is what I was able to get done this week or in the last three days" instead of "this is a self-contained, satisfying installment."
[Brandon] What will progress the story...
[Howard] Whether it's four panels which is what I'm usually offering or a full page like Phil Folio is offering with Girl Genius or maybe in a conventional comic book comic like Spiderman or Wolverine it might be three or four pages before it is really satisfying. That's difficult to do in traditional long form comics.

[Brandon] Something I'm seeing here is something we've talked about before which is the sense of progress. If what you want to do... you need to go into a scene wanting to accomplish things. Either subconsciously or consciously, you are accomplishing progression in character or plot in some way. When the reader gets done with that scene, they say, "I am further along than I was before." If you aren't giving them that in a scene... it doesn't really matter how long a scene is, I've noticed. If you do that across a very long chapter, sure your demands on how much satisfaction you're giving may be more. But in the long run, if someone gets done with your chapter, they hit a break point, and they say, "Wow. I felt like... I feel like I know the characters better or I felt like something has happened," you are successful. Just simply spending time enjoying the characters or enjoying the writing only can take you so far, I think. I have problems with some humor writers, as I have mentioned before, because the experience is enjoyable but the satisfaction isn't there. I get done with a scene and I have laughed and yet I don't feel I have gotten anywhere.
[Dan] I have noticed that when I have sent out some of my books for people to read and some of their early versions. Someone will say, "Oh, yes, I love it. I love it so far. It's great. It's hilarious." I'd say, "Are you done?" "Oh, no, I haven't picked it up in about a week." I think that's a sign that they're not getting that sense of progress. It's enjoyable while they're there, but there's nothing pulling them back to the next chapter.

[Brandon] One other thing I wanted to bring up. For me, when I am writing the end of a scene, I'm looking to bring the character out of the scene. I want to give this sort of subconscious cue to the reader that the scene is done. You usually find a short denouement in each of my chapters, which is something that I'm doing that I don't think a lot of thriller or horror writers are going to be doing. You'll get this arc, you'll get conflict, you'll get some sort of working within that conflict, you get introduction of other problems and mysteries. But as the scene ends, it'll slow down and the characters... I don't have the boring parts where they're going and getting into bed usually, but I will say, "And they walked out the door, intent on going and accomplishing the next task."
[Howard] And they stepped into the noisy street.
[Brandon] And they stepped into the noisy street. It's a cue that we're done.

[Dan] One of my favorite authors is Bernard Cornwell. He writes historical fiction, historical adventure fiction. One thing I've noticed with him is that most of his chapters will end with... I don't know whether to call it a conclusion or a thesis statement, but it's usually just a one sentence thing where he either sums up what just happened or he says, "And that's how I became this..." or "And then we started off to do this..."
[Howard] Is he writing first-person? What's he...
[Dan] No, it's usually third person, but...
[Brandon] That works very well, particularly if you begin a scene with a concept and end a scene with the same concept. It's the old thing your English teachers taught you, used in fiction form. You'll notice... some of the most satisfying chapters I've ever written or read do that.

[Howard] This raises a... I think it's a prosaic trick. I'm not sure if that's the right word. It's a trick used in prose. Where at the end of the chapter, the last sentence or the last paragraph will have some sort of unusual, uncommon word in it. Then the next chapter, in a completely different setting, with completely different characters, uses that same word...
[Brandon] Begins with that same concept...
[Howard] Doesn't begin with that same word, but it appears in that sentence. It has it in there. So the transition between the setting in the desert and the setting in the swamp is smoother because there is this continuity that was purely established with wordplay.
[Brandon] I think there's a lot more to talk about on this topic. We probably should do a podcast sometime later about bringing satisfaction to the reader. But we are out of time today. I'm going to go ahead and ask Dan to give us our writing prompt.

[Dan] Write a story in which Howard hates elephants and dramatically breaks one.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: chapter endings, chapters, cliffhangers, dramatic breaks, lack of resolution, progress, satisfaction, scene endings, scenes, writing excuses
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