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…

Audiobook Pitfalls

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?!”

Extra Tips

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?”

Author: Heather Jackson

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

9 thoughts on “Audiobook Pitfall: Scene Breaks”

  1. When an author gets their book chapters back on audio to listen to, they HAVE to listen to them. You can also download and send them to a few friends to act as betas. First, you’ll immediately see a narrator emphasizes some things different than you intended. I usually let that go so they have creative freedom and confidence, even if it costs me a good joke.

    The scene breaks, I achieved by a longer pause. Seconds count and in TV (and radio) you know dead air is obvious. I have my narrator add a few seconds to the scene changes the length varies by the pace of the narrator and the type pf story. Make it as long as you can stand. It’ll still only be seconds.)

    Another tip is to invest a few bucks into a book you read and liked that is now on audio and see how they did it. A $10 investment is cheap if it keeps your readers immersed in your audiobook.

    The biggie is still just taking the time to listen to it yourself while following along with the MS. You’ll hear the places it needs help and can relay the information to the narrator before signing off on the final, and with digital editing, the narrator can drop in changed quickly and easily.

    1. Thanks for the tips, Dan! Yes, that’s true with digital editing things can easily be changed. Though I don’t think that longer pauses compensate for a poorly structured scene. Regardless of whether there’s a 2 second pause or a 4 second pause, the scene still won’t sound complete.

      Do you create and edit the audiobook version at the same time as the print version? Because changes to one would necessitate changes to the other, so it would make sense to do edits of both simultaneously, but I always thought that the audio version came after the print was finalized. Though if I’m wrong, awesome!

  2. My biggest peeve with (some) audiobooks is that the listener is not alerted at the end of the disc. The audio “continues” back to Track One. Some of the well-known audiobook “publishers” can’t seem to bother with that detail. Especially annoying while driving!

    1. Omniscient isn’t very popular right now. Lots of 3rd person in use, but usually close not omniscient. Maybe I should listen to The Book Thief to find out how 3rd person omniscient fares as an audiobook.

  3. I was never a fan of the CD based audiobooks of old. I could only really listen to them in the car since, while I was using the computer, I really wanted to be doing something else and I wouldn’t listen to the book anyway. I didn’t spend enough time in the car – a few minutes here and there – to justify the expense of audiobooks. Now that you can download them to other devices like a smart phone, I’m willing to give them a try again.

    The pitfalls you describe for audiobooks apply to all stories and all novels. I try to be mindful of not closing out scenes properly. One of my problems is that in my series, especially in the first book and in the 5th that I’m currently writing, I have dual protagonists and I’m writing in first person so I’m inside one head or the other from time to time. I try not to mix them in chapters (but sometimes it happens) and I try, with my chapter headers and/or breaks to give the reader an indication of who’s head we’re in now. I can’t see an audiobook format doing justice to this type of set up no matter how specific I make my breaks when both protagonists share parts of a chapter.

    1. Yes, the pitfalls apply to all stories, not just audiobooks. They just seem to be more jarring in audible format. I’ve listened to books with dual POVs, and it’s easy-peasy to differentiate if they use different narrator voices. Though it’s important to note that the author did NOT switch POVs mid-scene. That doesn’t work with 1st person POV. So as long you don’t do that, there should be no problem listening to a story which has dual POVs.

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