Monday, March 12, 2012

Scene Breaks: Martin Doesn't Do 'em

Recently, in the critiques I've been giving for my writers group, I've taken to pointing out that we, as a group, don't generally use scene breaks. (Have you ever noticed you start pointing out bits and pieces in other people's writing that you think you might need in your own? I do that. A lot.) This strikes me as problematic because a story without scene breaks gets bogged down in the minutiae. You start to show the characters going through every single door, you show the characters as they dress, as they change television channels, as they do all the boring things that have nothing to do with the story.

You've heard, I'm sure, of the idea that shorter chapters = faster reads? I believe the same kinda deal goes on with scene breaks. You leave the reader hanging; you leave the reader wanting more. That way they turn the page and Voila! they get to your satisfying end. Seems to be a way to go.

And yet, here is George R.R. Martin. Bestseller.

He doesn't use scene breaks. At all.

Turn to any chapter in the Song of Fire and Ice series. At this exact moment I have A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings sitting right beside me. I've read both. Just this past minute I flipped through several chapters, just looking for the little gap of white space that indicates a scene break. I was to be thwarted in my search. Except for the chapter breaks, it's one long narrative. No scene breaks.

The question is: Is this a problem?

Well, I'd say yes and no. Yes, because the books do go for a long, long, long time. Both of the books are over 700 pages. Part of this might be that Martin - to this reader at least - gets bogged down in minutiae. I love that his world is so developed...but do I really need to know the details of every single outfit? For example, from a "Bran" chapter in A Clash of Kings:

"The sight of Bran in his basket drew stares from those who had not see it before, but he had learned to ignore stares. At least he had a good view; on Hodor's back, he towered over everyone. The Walders were mounting up, he saw. They'd brough fine armor up from the Twins, shining silver plate with enameled blue chasings. Big Walder's crest was shaped like a castle, while Little Walder favored streamers of blue and grey silk. Their shields and surcoats also set them apart from each other. Little Walder quartered the twin towers of Frey with the brindled boar of his grandmother's House and plowman of his mother's: Crakehall and Darry, respectively. Big Walder's quarterings were the tree-and-ravens of House Blackwood and the twining snakes of the Paeges."

And there are quite a few passages like this in both books. Again, great world-building detail, but I think it mostly unecessary.

That being said, I think Martin -in general - gets away with a lack of scene breaks because his chapters are very focused on single characters, and watching the interplay between the characters - understanding their maneuverings - creates tension in his story.

Martin's chapters, as focused as they are, aren't long either. (They're not short, but they're not long.) He keeps the scenes tight - so there's really not a great need for scene breaks. There's action in his scenes. The characters don't just sit there, so whenever a new character pops up, the reader is interested in what this guy is gonna do this time...and how will it effect the efforts of the other characters you just read about?

He creates movement. This is a skill that writers must develop, regardless of whether they use scene breaks or not. For as many words, as many pages, and as many characters as Martin has created, there's actually a surprising lack of superfluous information. (Like clothes.) Flipping through the pages, it was kinda hard to find the passage above as a useless piece. Every time I thought I'd found a piece that could be cut I found a reason it should be left in: this passage is all character development, that passage paints the scene - the fighting will be confused if the reader doesn't understand where that tree is. A led to Z almost every time.

Do you guys embrace scene breaks? How do you decide to structure your scenes?

4 comments:

  1. For me, a scene is often a chapter. But I write MG thrillers, so it sort of comes with the territory.

    I like breaks as a reader. I get overwhelmed by big chunks of text...

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  2. I find that I like scene breaks, but only some of the time. They're good for comedy and they're also good for creating drama that has the structure of comedy but some other emotion. Comedy has the advantage of timing, does it not? And timing is important in other kinds of drama too. Scattergun scenes, in my opinion, can be done successfully if they're done carefully. And by "scattergun" I mean frequent scene breaks.

    They can be annoying, though. I'm just finished The Name of the Wind by somebody Rothfuss and he does the opposite. He laces together scenes of varying lengths to build a long and chopped-up narrative. His book is also over seven hundred pages, but few of his scenes are more than five pages before a break, and most are shorter. He'll fit six or seven of them into a chapter then switch over. His chapters have zero uniformity. One is a single page long, but many are in the area of twenty pages, without any rules. He seems to be compelled to punctuate moments rather than emphasize flow. The effect is not bad, but it does give an impression of ADD. I can follow it but I'm not sure if it'd work well for everyone.

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  3. It took me longer to read "Game of Thrones" than it would have if there were scene breaks. Since my reading time is somewhat limited, I always look at how many pages I'll have to read before the next natural stopping point. If it's too many, I won't continue (or start that section in the first place).

    There are those who argue that those breaks give the reader an excuse to put the book down and not pick it up again. But sometimes the reader needs a place to put the book down. If the writer is doing his/her job, I'll pick it up again.

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  4. I agree that scene breaks can eliminate the inclusion of unnecessary details -- how the characters got from here to there, what they did along the way, all the stuff that's boring to write and even more boring to read!

    Of course, too many scene breaks in a book drive me crazy. I cannot stand the type of "thriller" that uses frequent scene breaks and character POV switches to build suspense instead of ... you know, writing something suspenseful. ;)

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