Straight talk from the sisters about blood, sweat and ink
Audiobook Pitfall: Scene Breaks
Since I’ve begun listening to audiobooks, I’ve noticed that not all books convert well to the audible format. So I started this little series: Audiobook Pitfalls. The sale of audiobooks is on the rise, and most new releases (not just bestsellers) are now made into audiobooks as well as e-books and print books, so it’s important for authors to be aware of how their writing may or may not work without the visual cues of the page.
Today, we’re going to talk about scene breaks. Most chapters are made up of multiple scenes, and visually these are separated by a space on the page, but in audiobooks it’s simply a slightly longer pause, which, if your scene isn’t well-structured, just doesn’t work. Here’s why…
Pitfall #2 = Random Scene Breaks
This is a pitfall whether you’re reading a paperback or listening to an audiobook – it’s just much more obvious when listening to a story. It almost makes me wish I could hire an actor to read my manuscripts to critique partners – creating beta listeners instead of readers, if you will. Of course, writers are always advised to read their work out loud for word selection and flow, but recognizing a confusing scene break is nearly impossible when you are the writer because you know what’s going on. But to a listener who is fresh to your story, a bad scene break will be jarring and confusing.
So what is a bad scene break? To me, this is when a scene just ends, seemingly in a random spot, without a conclusion. It’s when I (the audiobook listener) suddenly find myself with a different character, or in a different location, or something, and wonder, “Did I blank out for a few seconds?” Hitting rewind reveals that no, I didn’t blank out, I started a new scene, and the problem is the previous scene didn’t really end, so when the next scene started, I wasn’t prepared for it. Hence the confusion. So I’ve come up with a few tips to avoid that…
3 Crucial Tips for Writing Scenes That End
1) Structure scenes like mini-stories. Just like your whole novel, every scene should have an inciting incident, rising action, midpoint reversal, crisis and resolution. To put it another way, scenes need arcs. Often when a scene seems to just randomly end, it’s because it doesn’t have this structure, especially the resolution.
2) Address the character’s scene goal. Resolving a scene doesn’t necessarily mean solving the problem. The resolution in a scene comes from addressing the goal. In each scene the character will have a goal, and by the end of the scene the character will have succeeded or failed. It doesn’t matter which, positive or negative, just that there’s a resolution to the action which necessitates that character come up with a new goal to achieve what they want in the next scene. (Note: a cliffhanger is what I would consider a “negative resolution” because the scene goal has gone horribly wrong, leaving the reader wondering what will happen, but the original goal was still addressed.)
3) Change. Yes, my favourite writing topic! Something must change in every scene, and if it doesn’t the reader/listener will be left going, “Is that it? Was that the whole scene? What was the point of that?!”
– POV. Especially if your story is told in 1st person or close 3rd person, scenes should end with the protagonist’s thought or action. Ending on a secondary character’s action or dialogue leaves the scene feeling unfinished, because it’s not their story! There are a couple exceptions to this:
1) Multiple POVs. End the scene on the POV character narrating that scene.
2) Omniscient 3rd person POV. If following many characters throughout the novel via an omniscient narrator, then you don’t have to end every scene with the protagonist.
Bottom line, if your protagonist is the one telling the story, they must have a reaction to a secondary character before ending a scene, be it a response, action or internal thought. A scene that ends on someone besides your protagonist narrator won’t feel complete.
– Buttons. In screenplays, whether film, television or theatre, writers refer to something at the end of a scene they call a “button.” Basically, this is something that closes the scene the way a button closes your coat. Do novelists have this term? I don’t know (you’ll have to tell me in the Comments), but master authors still make use of this tool, whatever they call it. In comedy, the button is easy to spot – it’s the joke you go out on. In horror, it can be a hint (verbal or visual) that something bad is looming. It’s important to note that a button is not a resolution; that happens just before the button. A button is the cherry on top – it doesn’t have to be in the scene to make it end properly, but it adds a little something extra.
Like I said, these tips are not limited to audiobooks (all novels should have well-structured scenes), but when listening to a story, a weak scene end really stands out. Think of how the end of that scene sounds and ask yourself, “If there was no visual clue (i.e. page break), would the reader realize the scene is over?”
Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW
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