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?
Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.