Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cuts and Continuity

A book is long. (Okay, I guess that isn't quite so profound.) But, while a book is long, it can also be short. Or, at least the parts of the book can be short: short scenes, short chapters, short thoughts.

Sometimes, short is good. A story that cuts from scene to scene, character to character, can be fast-paced and exciting. One of the things I love about Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is that, even though the book is a gazillion pages long, each chapter is probably about three pages long. Tolstoy takes us into one character's mind ever so briefly before whisking us away into another character. As a whole, this technique works to present the grandeur of the story. We feel like we are reading about a society rather than a small cast of characters. When I open up that book, I actually feel like I'm in outer space looking down at wee specks of people vibrating about. (It's just my preference that I like books like this. Everything Is Illuminated and Joy Luck Club are a couple of other nice examples.)

Of course, sometimes, long is nice too. I always admire a writer who can keep one character's story exciting over several hundred pages. Catcher in the Rye comes to mind, but I'm sure there are other examples. It takes restraint and focus to be able to do this well. And, when it works, the story never feels small. A different sort of richness emerges as the rest of the world is implied.

As structure and story are intertwined, the decision between breaking up a novel into shorter pieces or keeping the narrative long will have large effects on what you end up with. The trick, at least for me, is to not fall back on one of these choices by default. With my early drafts of Rooster, for example, I often switched points of view simply because because I was stuck. Jumping into another character's head allowed me to restart. As a result, I had a lot of unfinished scenes I needed to go back to.

So, how does one keep it long? For me, the answer is sensitivity. When I'm writing, if I want to stay with a particular story line and I suddenly feel stuck, I go back and try to clue in on avenues I have yet to explore. I try to be sensitive to questions left unanswered, details that could be expanded to reveal more about the character. If I'm going to stick to one narrative line, I want to explore it thoroughly. (Incidentally, I even think the different parts of the three-act structure are organized in such a way as to thoroughly explore you particular subject.)

To keep it short, for me, the answer is grace. A book made up of several short segments has to gracefully transition from one part to the next. If you're going into different characters' thoughts, one technique to transition gracefully is to pan out and then pan in. You start with one character's thoughts, you pan out to describe some external detail that leads to another character, and then you pan in on the other character's thoughts.

Both of these strategies can result in a great story, and it's simply a matter of choosing how you want to tell it. But, with each strategy comes a new set of tools you must rely on.

What about you? Do you prefer long narratives or short pieces? What are some techniques you use to carry out your strategy?

Thanks to Matthew Delman for getting me to write this post.


  1. This is an interesting topic. How long—how short—how to transition. What will the reader tolerate? Short isn’t necessarily the problem I struggle with (unless it’s a short story, that is). Surely if the chapter or scene is engaging, the reader won’t mind a long, ambling ride.

    I wish I could say I actually have a strategy. I only know what felt natural in the telling of certain parts of my story, and I’m hoping for the best. My average chapter is between 2 -3K words, out of 96K. But 2 chapters are nearly 12K words each, 2 others are about 7K each. To break them up feels wrong.
    You see my dilemma.

  2. I love The Joy Luck Club--and just the other day I was thinking I've gotta watch the movie again.

    Long or short, I work my transitions a lot as I think they're probably the most important aspect of a long narrative, no matter the narrative's point of view. But, actually, during first-drafting, I do break insertions more subconsciously than consciously, and simply by starting a new section or chapter where the natural feeling of "a break should go here" is. I rarely change breaks while revising. I tend to write in long chapters with quite a few internal section breaks, even in my short stories section breaks can abound.

    You're right about short sections and pacing. I prefer quicker reads so that's the way I write. My latest book has no chapter breaks and only section breaks, and many are short. With this narrative I wanted a constant-push-forward feel.

  3. jbchicoine, I don't think you have a problem. I'm personally okay with chapters being of different lengths. I think it's more fun to read and doesn't feel as robotic. To be able to trust your instincts is probably the best place to be. Then, you can ignore all the rules.

    F.P., It's funny you mention the movie. I remember liking it a lot when I watched it some years ago. But, I just watched it again last week and found myself having trouble getting into it. I think Amy Tan has revealed a certain part of Chinese culture and Chinese-American culture that was once exotic and now, partly because of her, it feels more ordinary.

    I've often thought of writing a book with no chapter breaks. There's something really lovely about that, about feeling immersed and not having to be pulled out of the immersion.

  4. I've discovered recently that my writing works similar to the way television shows do. The breaks between chapters are where the commercials would go, and every few chapters are where it might work best to have a "to be continued" title card.

    This might be specific to me, but I wonder if any other folks think that way.

    Oh, and thanks for the link Davin!

  5. Davin --

    A lot of Terry Pratchett's early Discworld novels are like that. It can be jarring if you're used to reading things with chapter breaks.

    "The Color of Magic" is the first in the series if you're interested. The series if fantasy, but it's satire of the genre, so you might like it.

  6. Davin, normally I prefer long narratives. But recently I read "The Emperor's Children" and I loved how she bounced back and forth between the characters, often with very short chapters. But part of that, no doubt, lies with Messud's ability to write such richly drawn characters. And part of the fun of the story, and the comedic effect, if you will, was knowing what was going on in the other characters' minds and what they thought of each other.

    Now that I think of it, it kind of reminds me of The Corrections. But I read that a hundred years ago when I was all caught up in the lawyering thing or law school or something else that had my focus more than writing.

    But after reading The Emperor's Children, for the first time I wanted to write something like that--shorter chapters, different POVs, storylines woven together, characters bouncing off each other, etc.

  7. I've done only short pieces thus far, but my recent short story hit 9000 words. That's a respectable chunk of a novel, so I'm working up to the longer format.

    My favorite head-hopping piece ever is "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." The way Hemingway drifts between POVs is so elegant, so effortless, that me makes even the lion's POV believable. Sometimes it's only a single paragraph in a given viewpoint, and it works. That's graceful writing. (Graceful? Hemingway? Huh... interesting.)

    When it comes to my own work, I can only strive to emulate the ease and grace with which the masters wrote. The individual story will dictate whether the long or short form will predominate.

    P.S. Pratchett's Discworld series is very, very good. It's not a satire so much as a loving reinvention with subversive nods to all the cliches of the genre.

  8. I've seen the movie three times--so far, it hasn't lost its charm for me. I just love the bond between the female friends and their daughters, and how each of their personal stories unfolds. I find it a mostly sorrowful story; how ironic that the title sounds the opposite, at first read of those words, I mean.

  9. I'm more inclined to read and write in short scenes. I like books with 2-3 pages chapters, because it keeps me reading (only 3 pages? I'll read one more chapter then thing I know I've read 5-10 more chapters).

    When I write I plan out scenes. I'll define the POV and the primary plot point service in each scene. The scenes are generally 700-1500 words. Multiple scenes will come together for a chapter.

    I liked to format in THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, which had longer chapters comprised of many short scenes. It gives convenient stopping points, but at the same time it makes me want to keep reading.

    I typically begin a scene with an indicator of the POV, so the readers have a sense of who they are following through the scene.

  10. I like both the long and short. I love being swept away by a single viewpoint with a great voice and I also love the multi viewpoint stories that feel big.

    Right now I'm working on a single view point story that has three basic settings--home, school, and hospital. The book rotates between the three fairly regularly with few changes. Three distinct stories happening at the same time that become intertwined to form the big story. At least that is what I'm striving for.

  11. I think it's my instinct to write in short scenes. But I balance them out by group them together to form long-ish chapters. I sometimes feel like the scenes are too short, but I don't want to pad them for no purpose.

    When I'm reading, I find I like the chapters to be broken up into sections. I almost never have a long period of uninterrupted reading time, so I prefer the book to come with reasonable places for me to leave off.

  12. Really interesting question. I think every story is different. My last novel is 109K-word fantasy, very populated with characters, descriptions, conflicts, developments. My recent is literary YA. It’s 42K words complete and is devoid of much more past character development, conflict and resolution and language. They are on either end of the word count spectrum but are vastly different in content/delivery and used the words needed to craft each.

  13. long or short doesn't matter as much to me as well written. If something is compelling I've read 50 pages before I even realize I'm reading. I tend to sprinkle short and semi-long in my writing, but since I write for the YA crowd shorter paragraphs and chapters are usually better.

  14. I think it depends on the writing and story. If I'm really into it, I don't notice the chapter length. If it's dragging a bit, I look ahead to see when I can take a break.

    I also like how very short chapters keep me reading. Like Rick said, I think, "Just one more..."

    Sometimes I can quickly fly through a book with no chapters, just section breaks, for the same reason. But if the story is dragging, section breaks get annoying b/c I feel like I can't find a good place to stop.

  15. It all depends on the story I'm telling.

    With one project - three perspectives, three distinct sections (one for each perspective), per chapter. So, the chapters were not short, or overly long, but just Goldilock's right.

    I'm currently in the second draft phase of another project and I've been taking long chapters and breaking them up into shorter chapters that vary in length from 2 pages to 6 pages . . . at least right now. I'm not sure what the length will be in the final product.

    Personally, I don't like overly long chapters where I'm reading and reading and reading with no end in sight. I like medium length chapters.

    As for transitions - well, it depends on the story I'm telling. With the one project, each chapter was a specific month. With the current project, some chapters cover the same day, while other chapters occur 2 or 3 weeks later, or even a month as I'm propelling the character through a year in his life.


  16. Matthew, Thanks for the recommendations. Every once in awhile I get into the mode of comparing my stories to things on TV or in theaters. I try to stay away from that just because it feels suspicious to me. But, my guess is that it's normal.

    Jennifer, Yes, I just love that sort of thing. And, I think often by doing that, you can reveal more about a story than you can with a more limited point of view.

    Simon, I started out writing bad novels, and then I went to the short story form and the flash forms before building up in length again. Now, I'm very curious with the long short stories and novella forms. I think each story in my mind has a certain appropriate length, and I'm looking forward to exploring them.

    Rick, I'm the same way. There's something very compelling about short chapters. You think you can squeeze in just a little more reading.

    Paul, your idea sounds like a great one. I'm trying to write longer scenes in my latest story as well. I'm staying with one point of view, and so far, I like the challenge of it.

  17. Dominique, I tend to write short as well. Some people say my writing is spare, but to me I just can't think of what else to write without cluttering it with needless detail. But, I find that the more I write the more I have to say.

    Jennifer, that's very interesting. I'm curious to see what happens with my writing as I write more books. The idea of having a body of work to look over is very exciting.

    Lois, I agree that good writing trumps all. I'm always aware of length, though. It's intimidating for me to tackle a long work, or a series of pages with no paragraph breaks. Maybe I'm just lazy.

    Annie, I think I experience the same thing as you. It's interesting that a chapter break can both cause someone to read more of get them to stop. That shows the importance of transitions!

    Scott, I'm with you about the long chapters. The writing and story has to be really exciting for me to get caught up to the point where I want the chapter to be longer and longer. There's a sense of satisfaction with getting to a stopping point, be it a chapter end or the book's end.

  18. Personally, I like short, fast scenes. It keeps me reading and makes the work un-put-downable.

    Then again, a graceful long work (such as CATCHER) are the few books that become my favorites...


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