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?