Sunday, December 13, 2009

Scene breaks and hand-offs

My adventures with my latest story have led me to contemplate the question of scene breaks and hand-offs. By this I mean evaluating possible breaking points to see which one would serve the story best, and trying to determine how effective a change of point of view would be at those different points.

There are a lot of ways to handle scenes, and stories. I'm thinking of Mike Flynn's story, "Where the Winds are All Asleep," which involved a story told by a person in an Irish pub - that had a whole frame of the pub setting and then broke up the story itself with elements of the pub interaction. This is to say that I'm not saying every story should have the scene structure I'm about to discuss - I'll just put my musings out here in case anyone else does find them useful.

My short stories tend to have seven scenes. I couldn't tell you why, but both of my Analog stories were like that, and the next one is turning out that way as well. I've been doing short stories for a few years now, and I pay quite a bit of attention to scene breaks and what lies to either side of them: first sentences, and last sentences.

I was sharing first sentences with my friend K yesterday and we discovered that if I listed all the first sentences of each of my scenes, that it gave a decently good outline of what was happening in the progression of the story. Given that I like my first sentences to propel readers directly into the next piece of the main conflict, that makes a degree of sense.

A list of my scene-ending sentences didn't have the same outline-like quality. The reason for this, I think, is that last sentences don't need to function as orientation devices (as first sentences do). The main function of last sentences is to make a reader desperately want to read the first sentence of the next scene. This is something I learned from my friend Janice Hardy: your last sentence should make the reader curious. It doesn't have to be a cliffhanger, necessarily, but it needs to show forward momentum.

This is where I get to the question of a breaking point. If you write, you've probably encountered those places where a scene just seems to stop and not want to go any further - or to feel strained if you try to push it beyond that point. I find that ideal breaking points tend to be places where the tension of the scene has just ramped up. Something big has just happened, and we desperately want to know what its consequences will be, so what better place to stop and take us directly to the consequences? [Mind you, this is also why you shouldn't cut off at a point of high tension and then take us directly to something unrelated that happens much later!]

A breaking point, if you choose to use it as the official end of your scene, then leads you to a hand-off. This is what I mean by jumping to the consequences. You're handing off the baton from one scene to the next, switching the momentum so the story will keep driving forward. There are a lot of ways this can be handled, depending on the narrative distance you're using, and the point of view you've chosen, etc. When I started writing my current story, At Cross Purposes, I made some deliberate choices about the switch of scenes. These choices were based on what I'd learned from my last two stories.

In "Let the Word Take Me," I switched between points of view, human to alien, but only the human point of view actually provided story drive and forward momentum, while the alien point of view was more static, like a contemplative interlude. "Cold Words" had no point of view switches at all, so every scene had to drive the story forward. I found that I really liked this, so when I came to my current story I decided that somehow I had to execute the switch of point of view from human to alien and back, but keep the hand-offs really tight and allow each point of view to drive the story forward in a different way.

So far, so good. Last night I reached a breaking point and decided to call it quits for the night, believing that the scene was over. But there was a problem, I discovered. There was another breaking point still coming in the narration; either I could break where I did, or I could try to make the scene continue until the second break point.

I thought this over: for any scene, the point of view choice should make for the most interest, the highest stakes, and the lowest redundancy. It should also, since I'm writing science fiction, allow for the greatest sense of wonder and discovery. I had a scene in the hallway before from the alien point of view, so maybe this one should be from the human point of view, to avoid redundancy - after all, this would be the first time the humans have really seen the alien ship in its full glory. There's a big conflict coming up that has to be in alien point of view because it won't make any sense if I keep it in human point of view (that's another important factor!). The event which causes this conflict is the second breaking point.

So I mulled it over, and things started looking good for pressing the scene a little further - and then suddenly I discovered something important: a way to make the first breaking point not seem so final, but appear to be part of a progression within the scene that then leads to the second breaking point. That was when I finally decided to change what I'd done - when I figured out how to make the scene work without having the extra material feel tacked on.

It's hard to get any deeper into this question without giving more of the actual story text, which I don't feel comfortable doing at the moment. I just hope that this post has given a small view into some of the factors that go into choosing when and how to break one scene and hand off to the next one.


  1. A great post! I hadn't thought of scene transitions in this way. Thanks!

  2. Good thoughts. I'll have to keep this in mind when I reach the revision stage finally. Right now I'm still trying to get words on paper, even though my transitions are obvious and cliche.