Open to a random page, and read.

Recently, an author friend was lamenting that he got almost no feedback on his snippets posted to a group chat. While he didn’t say “unlike you”, I can read between the lines. (Subtext. Us authors are supposed to be good at that. Doesn’t mean I am in real time.)

I thought about it, and offered up a few reasons. The first is, he’s on book 3, and his books can be 160,000 words long, and he’s posting whole big chapters of a big book. More than once I’ve had no idea who the people involved are, because I haven’t read book 2, and it’s been a few years since I read Book 1. So I’m going “I have no idea who these people are or what their motivation is. Um. So I have no feedback.”

Also… When I have to scroll, and scroll, and scroll back through a chat to read 6-8,000 words of a chapter, well, it’s a massive attention requirement right there, and people go to chat for… chatting. So part of the issue is the medium, not just the message.

Also, by the nature of chat… if I log on after I’ve had a couple very busy days and see “You have 1800 new messages”, they’re all going to get marked as read, and I’m not even going to try. Social media is supposed to be something I enjoy, not a painful chore. (Part of why I only log onto Facebook every few weeks. The more painful their interface, the less I use it.) But this means I’m going to miss snippets, and so I have to be able to follow the story with large chunks missing.

Not every book is written with the intent to grab you if you open it to a random page. Not every book should be, eh?

So, how do I get feedback?

Well, my chapters are short, kind of like my attention span. They’re one scene long, and I can only hold so much scene in my head at a time. And each chapter… well, as people from Dwight Swain to Dianna Wynn Jones have noted, a scene should do several things.
1.) Advance the plot
2.) Advance the character’s emotional arc
3.) Explain the background and the character’s backstory

A scene that does none of these things isn’t actually a scene, and doesn’t belong in the story. (Tad Williams, with your long rambling scene describing a brook that had absolutely nothing to do, even metaphorically, with the characters, the plot, or the land the characters were travelling through, I’m looking at you. No, I still haven’t forgiven you. I spent hours flipping back and through the book once I was done, trying to figure out how that was relevant, and the answer was, it wasn’t at all. All my expectations, betrayed! I haven’t read you since.)

Only doing one thing is incredibly thin and and slow for the reader. A scene that does two is solid, but could be improved. A scene that does all three is where it’s at.

But I have one more requirement for a chapter, that I learned from Jagi Lamplighter: a scene needs to have a change in emotional tone.

If I enter on horrified, I’ll try to leave them laughing. If you start laughing, you won’t be by the end. That emotional shift keeps readers interested, and it also does a good job of keeping the pacing moving, because things keep happening at a decent enough clip to drive actions and reactions, physical, mental, and emotional.

When I get comments? They’re commenting on the emotional reactions as much as the expectations set and fulfilled.

Do you have any other rules for building scenes or chapters?

8 comments

  1. There needs to be a small rise, peak, and decline, like the rest of the book. Note, there are some exceptions, but those are often to provide information, or to build tension and add foreshadowing of greater action looming around the corner.

    I just finished a scene where the character is going to meet his overlord and a neighbor who ordered the death of the protagonist’s brother, and almost killed the protagonist as well. Or perhaps didn’t. The group moves through a forest, and encounters something new. A something that left large tracks, with large claws. Men are not the only danger here [foreshadowing] and there are reasons to be wary. Oh, and the weather has turned cold, a hard cold. [Foreshadowing, warning]. The main character has been ordered NOT to go looking for revenge, because justice “will come on silent feet.” [Foreshadowing] So nothing happened in the scene, except . . .

    1. Sorry, forgot a comma. He’s going to meet the Northern Emperor, and the main character’s neighbor will be there as well.

  2. Not that I’ve studied fiction writing methods in depth, but this was the best and simplest method for writing a fiction scene that I’ve found. Thanks so much!

  3. Suppose you are snippetting a long multi-scene chapter on a blog.

    If you are snippetting it daily, you might want to break it into sub scene chunks.

    Suppose a scene involving several people talking over a problem. The situation at the start of the discussion, and the end of the discussion will be different. Action items, etc. You don’t have to slice the snippet down to covering a single concept, but a snippet has movement, and leaves you wanting to see the next event.

    If you have a day for comments to show, maybe you get nothing, maybe you get only comments about the last question you raise, maybe someone really is interested in something mid snippet that the later material would normally distract on. If you snippet regularly, and have a community, you may get discussions off of comments.

    If what you post are really large chapters, such that a reader may want a day or two for the first read through, and a day or two for notes, before they have anything to say. You might get comments spread out over time in chat, if you have a community of readers, but not if you are also posting in a chat. Long posts are for forums or web pages, I suspect.

    I’m the time of reader who comments sometimes on long complicated things. But, a) relatively few stories that I’m a huge fan of b) I can recall updates where I was the only reader saying anything c) Feed back was not instant where it was rigorous. And, I still wonder if that one guy ever started posting that story somewhere again, and if it was my flakiness that was the issue.

  4. A chat set up is bad for this sort of thing. The writer needs to be able to post a snippet (Like this blog) with all the comments and discussion as, well, comments like this. Fans, visitors, and alpha/beta readers should be able to go the site and just see the site owner’s posts, and comment threads only if they want.

    You can refer him to mine https://pamuphoff.livejournal.com/ if he wants to see an example of a writer using it for Beta readers.

  5. The best feedback I get when I post snippets is when somebody says “I would like to buy this please.” That’s all I need to know. ~:D

    “Do you have any other rules for building scenes or chapters?”

    Generally I do everything wrong, and I certainly do this wrong too. For me a chapter is when the action with one character or group seems to have come to a plateau, and I want to see what those other guys back at the ranch are doing. Sometimes I have one chapter where we see an action from one character’s location, then the next chapter is the same action from a different location.

    We get to see the flying saucer crew discussing what’s next, we get to see the lippy robot spiders and crazy mecha-suited humans making fun of the flying saucer from down in the desert at the landing location, and finally we join the FBI agents in their stakeout car when they see the flying saucer for the first time. Same flying saucer, three chapters. Or sometimes three jump-cuts in the same chapter, it depends.

    I recommend no one else use my method. It is weird, and wrong, but it is mine own. ~:D

  6. I outlined the first half of the book-that-will-never-be based on the plotting of TV series I liked: A chapter is an episode with its own substory, but season arc and show arc both also move forward.
    That didn’t work. Among other issues, it resulted in really long chapters. I did write the first several, which highlighted another problem: Linear writing doesn’t work for me. I need to skip back and forth, which I didn’t get used to.
    I like Dorothy’s pattern. I didn’t notice it while reading, but the books read very easily and quickly, so I think it works.

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