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Writing Excuses 8.27: Chapter Breakdowns

Writing Excuses 8.27: Chapter Breakdowns


Key Points: How do you intersperse viewpoints and chapters? Consider who is your main character, and where you want the focus to be. One option is chapter by chapter different character POV. Another is chunks, several chapters, from one character's POV, with a beginning, middle, and end. Be aware of the cost of switching POV and chapter breaks. Use chapter breaks as internal cliffhangers, building tension and excitement. Big chunks are involving. Make sure that the character you are jumping to has something at stake, a compelling reason for the reader to want to read about them. Do your outline with events and exposition. Then decide who has the most at stake in each scene. Then look at the switches between POV characters. Sometimes you have to beef up someone's motivation. Some people write chronologically, some write viewpoints and then interweave. Chapters are for pacing, add them as you go. Often a scene is a chapter.  For short stories, scene breaks are like chapter breaks, except more expensive.

[Mary] Season eight, episode 27.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Chapter Breakdowns.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] We are recording at the Writing Excuses Retreat. So make some noise, folks.

[Brandon] There we are. We are in Mary's basement and we are going to talk about chapter breakdowns. Specifically, we're going to talk about how we choose to intersperse our viewpoints in a chapter, when we decide to stick with a viewpoint for a long time and do many chapters or if we're going to do one chapter from one character, one chapter from another character, or vice versa. That sort of thing. I'm going to ask Dan...
[Dan] Oh.
[Brandon] Because you have a... You have never done this.
[Dan] Brilliant mind.
[Howard] Missing tailbone.
[Dan] I am starting to do this more and more. The Partials series expands its number of characters as it goes on...
[Brandon] That's right.
[Dan] So I just finished writing the third one, which is not out yet. That one has four or five characters with points of view who show up. The main one being Kira. She gets at least half the chapters in the book. But then we'll get things from Marcus and things from Sam. Some characters only get one chapter because it's important to see that scene from their point of view. The way that I chose the frequency was I never wanted to go more than three chapters in a row without getting back to Kira as the main character.
[Brandon] Okay. Because she's the main character.
[Dan] Because I always want to keep the focus on her. So I would break away and I would do one from someone, one from someone else, and then straight back to Kira again.
[Brandon] Okay. How many viewpoints are you doing? Are you juggling... Is it like six or seven or is it only...
[Dan] In Ruins, we're looking at probably six or seven overall. There's... At least two of those are one shots.
[Brandon] So your goal in that is keep the readers' eyes and the tension on the main character and be jumping around.
[Dan] And show the little pieces of the other stories as necessary.

[Brandon] Okay. I noticed this for the first time as a reader, before I even became a writer, because I read the big thick epic fantasies. This is a big deal in epic fantasies. Because you've basically got the two options. You've got what Dan is saying, where you're jumping, every chapter a different character viewpoint, or you've got the let's say late Robert Jordan method, where you will run into a section of like eight chapters from one character's viewpoint where you get a beginning, middle, and end for this character, and that's all you get from the book. I think they both lead to some situations. Meaning they give you... They add certain things you can kind of... But they also have their issues. For instance, the big arc of a lot of... Of a character does give this sort of satisfying beginning, middle, and end. It's like a little novella in the middle of your book, which can be very cool. The problem with that being, when someone gets done with that novella, they almost feel like they've finished the book. I've noticed when I read it, it gave me a sense of I now... I can put the book down, my character that I just grown so attached to is not in the rest of this book, and I'm annoyed because I don't get this character for another 500 pages until I get to the next book.

[Mary] Yeah. Which is one of the things that I always notice with... When you're switching POVs, you have to be aware of the cost of switching, because the reader not only invests in whoever they're reading but there is a reset that happens every time you break at a chapter in every time you switch a POV. So you have to think about that and whether or not you're going to lose dramatic steam at that point by dropping... By switching.
[Brandon] Right, right. Well, there's another issue in this. I did, in Elantris, I've talked about this before... Three characters, and I would do one viewpoint each. Strict rotation. It was just fun for me for the format. What has happened with that book is everyone who reads that book picks a favorite character, a character they don't mind reading, and a character they hate. Every reader... Well, maybe not every reader, but most of the ones I've talked to...
[Mary] I hated all of them.
[Brandon] What happens... I feel like the form kind of forced that on them, because they get really interested in one, and since I'm breaking so quickly, they get annoyed that they don't get a real chunk from this character. It's like, "All right. I've got to rush through these other two viewpoints to get back to my character." So that has that issue to it.

[Dan] But I think that might be in part an artifact of writing in epic fantasy, which wants to have these longer things. Writing in something smaller, I tend to do thrillers and that kind of genre where you can use that break as a form of cliffhanger to keep excitement going, so it builds steam instead of loses it.
[Brandon] Right. That's what you gain. That's certainly what you gain. Even in
Elantris, that's what you gain. Then... I mean that's... Like I said, both have cool aspects to them. They also have drawbacks. I think that's what you gain.
[Howard] I think the drawback to the eight chapters of one character is that if I'm not in love with that character, I'm done with the book. I...
[Mary] Well, that is a problem with the character then.
[Howard] Oh, I know. But if it's... Well, but sometimes you are writing a character who... I mean, you need to write a character that we don't like.
[Mary] Yeah, but George RR Martin manages to do that, and all of the Jaime Lannister scenes which we should really not want to be in...
[Brandon] You like reading. But he does jump a lot.
[Mary] He does.
[Brandon] He's more in the Dan's thriller style where his chapters, as I recall, it's been a while but as I recall, are very short with... From a viewpoint. Then they're always jumping to somebody new. You don't have chapters often from the same character in a row.
[Howard] I'm just saying the risk is if those aren't eight knock-them-out-of-the-park chapters...
[Brandon] I've found... I'm going to agree with that. But I've found in the Wheel of Time, what you gain from that is with eight chapters of just arc, when I sit down and say, "All right. This is not my favorite character. I'm going to read these eight chapters by this character." He gets that chance to make me really like that character by the end of it. What you find in some of these big fantasies, is every... The author is able to make you really like that character by the time you get to the end of it. Then you're like, "Oh, I don't want to go back to the character that I was waiting to read about, because I've gotten involved with this story."

[Mary] That is the thing, I think, with all of these is that you have to make sure that whatever you're jumping to, the character that you're jumping to, has something at stake and a reason for the reader to care about them and want to get back to them.
[Howard] That's... My... Any time I change POVs, I mean, understand, I don't build chapters the way other people build chapters. But I POV switch and often... When I say POV switch, I'm usually writing a third person cinematic POV. I'm not in somebody's head, but the camera is following a particular group of people. I will follow them while they are the interesting group of people, and I will follow them either until resolution or until catastrophe. Then I will cut away to something else that is interesting and compelling while I figure out either what they're doing next or... No, no, no, that's usually while I figure out what they're doing next.
[Dan] Now, at the beginning I said that I'm starting to do this more and more. My first books were all single POV. What I have learned going through this process is that as I built my outline, the switching tends to be focused on I need to remind the reader that this character is still here. Which is important, but it's also a horrible thing to base a chapter on. So like Mary was saying, there has to be a compelling reason. So it's... Even though the real reason is I need to get back to these guys because I haven't in a while, you need to add an extra reason on top of that. Like, I haven't seen them in a while AND they're being eaten by [inaudible]
[Howard] They're in the book because... That's like...

[Mary] Here's this important piece of exposition I need to deliver. You're welcome. The thing that I do when I outline with a multi-character POV is that I go through and I do a plot outline. So it's just these are the events that need to happen and these are the pieces of exposition that I need to get on the page. These are the things you need to know... The elements. Then I go through and look at each one and figure out who has the most at stake in a particular scene. Then, at the end of that, I look at it to see kind of if I'm switching often enough between the POV characters. Sometimes I'll look at it and discover that, you know what, I'm going to go to this person's POV like three times. So I just decide to not make them a POV character. Other times, I will look at it and realized that I am very heavy on one character in a chunk, and that both characters are present, so I have to come up with a reason for the other character to have something at stake. That seems to be working to give me that balance and give me a reason to switch back and forth. It actually makes the overall story more compelling, I think.

[Brandon] Excellent. Let's break for our book of the week. I actually am going to do that this week, because it is Brian McClellan's Promise of Blood. Brian was... He took my class. I don't like to say he was a student of mine, because he came into the class already as a great writer. So there wasn't a lot for me to do. He was already writing really, really cool stuff, and I said, "You're going to get published someday. Just keep working at this." He was one of the best students I've ever had, talent wise. Lo and behold, he went at it and he is published. He has this fine book out from Orbit which I have read, and it is quite good. It is a flintlock fantasy that involves kind of this revolution and kind of this cool magic system where people actually use gunpowder, they ingest it, and it's very cool, and they're making the guns do cool things. Nice large cast of characters and he actually starts his book with four different viewpoints, I believe, in four different chapters. Which is really... I often suggest to people not to do that, but I actually liked each of the characters and he didn't lose me.
[Dan] Yeah. He pulled it off really well, and pulls off the gunpowder fantasy better than I've ever seen.
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Gunpowder... For a long time, gunpowder... I liked... Who called it flintlock fantasy? On one of the quotes on the back. I'm like, "That's a great way to call it." For a long time, that was the kiss of death, but I think fantasy is broadening as a genre to the point where we're willing to accept a lot of what used to be nonstandard settings. It works really well in this.
[Howard] Head on out to Kick off a 15 day free trial membership? I forgot how long it is.
[Mary] I think it's a 30 day free trial.
[Howard] It's 30? Wow!
[Mary] We're 15 minutes long.
[Dan] It is a perfectly wonderful number of days.
[Howard] There are days... There's entire days, weeks even in this free trial membership.
[Mary] There are details about it on the website.
[Howard] Indeed.
[Howard] Slash excuse.

[Brandon] All right. So...
[Howard] I am so fired.
[Brandon] Yeah. You're fired. Second half. You're not fired because we don't want to do it. Second half of this podcast, let's talk about how we build our chapters. I just want to hear from the group, do you write strictly chronologically? Dan, have you ever written by viewpoint in a large list? Do you break up your chapters as you're writing, or do you write one big book and then work out where the chapters go? How does it work for you?
[Dan] I do... I write strictly chronologically. I've tried writing things out of order and then shuffling them into the right order. It just doesn't work for me, personally.
[Brandon] Okay. So you are building your chapters as you go? You're like, "This is a chapter," or do you ever say, fiddle with this, or...
[Dan] No. The way that I outline is that I will have a... I have a list of scenes in the order that I want them to be in. That inevitably changes as I write. But those scenes will usually end up as a single chapter each. But sometimes in writing it, I realize this is way too short or way too long to be a single chapter, so I'll combine it with something else or shrink it down.
[Brandon] Do you ever move chapters around?
[Dan] Yes. I do. Which I suppose is an exception to the chronological writing.
[Brandon] No, that's all right. After you're done. Mary, what about you?
[Mary] I'm similar to Dan. What I do is I've got the list. What I do when I'm plotting it is that I will roughly break it into chapters, knowing full well that I'm not going to follow that chapter breakdown at all. Because for me, chapter breaks are really about pacing. It's deciding where I want to either create suspense by essentially going to commercial, which is the "Oh!" at the end of the chapter, or if I want to give the audience a rest, which sometimes you do want to do. Whether I want to come to an emotional resolution. But basically, it's a pacing thing for me. So what I do is, as I'm writing, the only reason I break it into chapters in my outline is so that I get a rough sense of how long the book is likely to be. So I can see if, oh, you know what, this is going to come in really short, or wow, I have too much in here and I need to cut a plot. But then as I'm writing, I... If I hit a point and I feel like this is the end of a chapter...
[Brandon] You just do it.
[Mary] I just do it.

[Brandon] I'm like that, although I don't usually break it into chapters. I don't have any chapters, usually, in my outline. If I do, they're very rough guidelines. My chapters are... As I've said, when I'm outlining, it's a list of goals and objectives from various different plot archetypes that I'm sticking together and saying, "Okay. This sequence needs to happen." I'll build a chapter out of it, and I'll start writing that. Usually like... Usually meaning six times out of 10, that whole thing becomes a chapter, but almost as often, it doesn't. I get like halfway through, and I'm like, "No, the chapter feels right like this." Usually it's sort of the sort of idea that you've mentioned with short stories that I've begun with this theme, and we've hit this theme. That's a natural break point. We stop there. Or it's the time to go to commercial, because we've hit something really active, cool happening. Time to break there, so that we can kind of... So that we can heighten tension by having a new chapter start. I do move chapters around a whole lot. I do write by viewpoints. I didn't used to, but now I kind of have to. When I'm writing books this big, writing chronologically... I need to get in that character's head and I need to write a complete arc for them, so that I can then know what I am playing with as the backbone of my book as I plug in other chapters and things.
[Mary] Yeah. I can imagine doing that if I were going to write a Chihuahua killer.
[Brandon] It was because of the Wheel of Time, where it's like... I've got eight main characters who all need an arc in this book. If I try to juggle eight main characters, that doesn't... I found that doesn't work very well. I can juggle three and keep their emotional arcs completely in my head, but I needed to do the eight. So I actually used to write all strictly chronologically. All the Mistborn books were straight chronological. It was the Wheel of Time came along and changed that.
[Howard] If I'm not writing straight chronologically, I'm throwing a screaming fit. It's really only happened once or twice, where I realized that there was a piece missing as I read through the scripts that had art on them. I looked at it, and I thought, "There is a piece of story missing, and it is an important piece of story. I don't know what it is, and I don't know what I did wrong." I ended up laying everything out, all of the pictures out on my game table... And my structure is weird. The seven-day structure, where Sundays are big, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday are smaller installments. This isn't something... This isn't a form that the average writer has to worry about, but the lesson I think that you can take home from me is that when your form is dictating things, you absolutely have to understand the form and understand how that works. For me, the idea of a chapter is kind of artificial. What's important is really the scene-sequel format. Something needs to happen, we need to react to the thing. Something needs to happen, we need to react to the thing. I need to follow the character in the most pain. I need to follow the character who's best able to tell a joke. It's really kind of crazy. But I... But what you guys are talking about with regard to character switching, and writing the through line... I have to be able to write chronologically, and I have to be able to cast ahead, as I'm writing what's going down now, I have to be thinking, "All right. I'm going to need to switch characters really soon here. I don't know who I'm going to switch to yet, but I'm going to get this part done. I'll figure that out tomorrow."

[Mary] Now... I know that we're almost out of time.
[Brandon] Go ahead.
[Mary] We've been mostly talking about this in terms of novels. I will say that when you're thinking about it in terms of short stories, that scene breaks serve much the same function as chapters. Much smaller, but again, you have to think about that cost. Because you are dealing with a much more compressed form, the cost is frequently higher for that switch, proportionally.
[Brandon] So you want to generally switch less often and you want to switch to... You want to keep your viewpoints down much more so.
[Mary] Yeah. It is very rare that I will write a short story that has more than one POV. I will do it in novella occasionally.
[Brandon] You got mad at me because my novella had an extraneous viewpoint one time. That one person... You jumped me. That's a novel thing. That's not a novella thing to write.
[Mary] It's not.
[Brandon] All right. We're going to give you... We still have a disagreement over that scene. It probably doesn't belong, but...

[Brandon] All right. I'm going to give you a writing prompt. I'll give you a writing prompt. I actually want to do a slightly different writing prompt than normal. I want to send you to an outlining writing prompt where I want you to outline a plot arc. Then I want you to break it into some chapters. I want you to do this with two different characters. You're going to write two different plot arcs, and I want you to interweave them and just kind of look at that. Interweaving the chapters and say, "What will this do to my tone? What will this do to my pacing?" Then put them in two big chunks, and say, "What does this do to my story? What does this do to my novel if I were to do it this way?" Just try to imagine, if you can, through your outlining what different advantages you would gain to your plot by trying those two different things. All right? This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] Oh. Hang on. Should someone turn on the applause light?
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