Insert Break – when to start a new paragraph, scene, or chapter

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

When I first started writing seriously, I was surprised at how I suddenly started to second-guess myself about the most basic things. I found myself googling “What is a sentence?” and “When should you start a new chapter?” I was worried that the chunks of text that made up my story were too long, or too brief, or too convoluted, or too sparse.

Breaks are important. They create ‘white space’ – breathing points for the brain that reduce cognitive load.

There’s a lot of great stuff out there on the internet on cognitive load if you want more detail, but – to put it simply – cognitive load is the equivalent of asking you to carry 100kg in one trip or 10kg in ten trips. It’s the reason long number sequences, like phone numbers or credit card numbers, are written as smaller groups of numbers with spaces. Or why you can’t remember the order of the planets but can remember ‘My very educated mother just showed us nine planets’ (back in the day when there were nine planets…Ah, good times).

So, yes, breaks are important. But, just as important, is where you put those breaks.

You don’t want to just go

ahead and p

ut them anywhere.

(See what I did there? 🙂 )

Jamming some white space in a block of text just to free it up is a bad idea. At best, it’s mildly irritating, at worst it is confusing and exasperating. That’s because white space lessens cognitive load by separating and grouping elements into things that belong together and things that don’t.

Categorising is something we humans learn as early as eight months old. It is something we are conditioned to do – forks go together in that space, cutlery goes in that drawer, pants get hanged, jumpers get folded, white wine goes in the fridge, red wine goes in my glass, thank you very much 🙂

Humans love to categorise – we categorise everything from the smallest atom to the largest solar system. It can help us (when understanding why that crocodile is laying an egg instead of giving birth to live young) or can hinder us (when making us racist bigots because all we see is how that person or group of persons is different to us). We do it, because it helps us to identify and focus on something, it gives that element clear dimensions, which in turn allows us to understand how it is related to other elements.

Take the work of Ursus Wehrli, who ‘tidies up’ things:

Ursus Wehril

The picture of the left is chaotic with no white-space (because the textural depiction of the sand makes it a dynamic element of the picture, not just a passive background). Where do you focus? What is the story?

Now look at the picture on the right. It amazes me the physiological sigh of relief my eyes and brain take when I look at that picture. My whole body seems to relax when I move from the one on the left to the one on the right. Because I get it. I understand it. I can move my attention to parts of the picture and study each element in turn. Because the elements have been separated and grouped.

In the picture on the right, they have been grouped by function/shape. They could have just as easily been grouped into colour and I would have the same reaction.

What’s interesting about the picture on the right (to me at least), is that not everything has been tidied up. While the elements have been separated into columns based on function/shape, and the columns themselves are arranged from top to bottom in increasing size, there is still some ‘creative chaos’ in play. All the yellow buckets haven’t been grouped together. All the spades with circular/closed handles haven’t been grouped together. The columns aren’t arranged from tallest to smallest.

The marriage of structure and creativity is important – because as writers or artists, we need to be creative. As I’ve written before, the relationship between art and science doesn’t have to be antagonist. It can be symbiotic. The maths behind the music. The chemistry behind the colours. The structure behind the words.

So, for me, ‘tidying up’ a written work is all about introducing white space or breaks that separate out particular elements to increase reader focus on them.

Instead of a wall of text, I choose to insert breaks between sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and acts to ensure they contain one single element of focus:

  • One idea per sentence; e.g. Joan walked the dog around the block. (Joan is walking a dog)
  • Once concept per paragraph; e.g.Joan walked the dog around the block. The terrier was massive, its muscular body taut and heaving with barely-restrained energy. It occasionally growled, a low guttural sound that left Joan shivering despite the afternoon heat. (The dog is big and scary)
  • One situation per scene; e.g. (The dog bites a small child)
  • One conflict & consequence per chapter; e.g. (Joan is ordered to destroy the dog, the last link she has with her long-estranged and now deceased father)
  • One value transition per act; e.g. (Joan loses all tangible connection with her deceased father, goes from saddened at his loss to distraught that she has nothing that links him to her).

I’ll go into more detail about these breaks in future blog posts, but, for now, it is enough to recognise they each contain just one element and that each element is more complex than the one preceding it.

Yes, it is a hierarchy – the values range from basic to complicated and are interrelated: Every sentence in a paragraph must work to generate or clarify the concept of that paragraph; each paragraph must give colour and meaning to the scene’s situation; each scene must trigger and rationalise the chapter’s conflict and consequence; and each chapter must set up the various stages of the act’s transition.

What about you? Does a bit of structure help you to draft or edit your WIPs?

Insert Break – when to start a new paragraph, scene, or chapter

Plotting to the Midpoint: Why you need a half-time plan

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

With Divided Elements in the hands of my copy-editor, I’ve been using July to get some new writing done. Having signed up for both #JulyWritingChallenge and Camp NaNoWriMo, I was worried that my efforts would falter the way my first attempt at NaNoWriMo did – a lot of angst and procrastination, not much writing. Pleasantly enough, I am slaying it! (Already at 12,000 words (I set my target at 15,000))

The two secrets to my success?

  1. Detailed and logically-structured plotting – thanks to my awesome plot roadmap
  2. Detailed and logically-structured plotting only up to the midpoint

The second secret is the important one (at least, for the purposes of this post).

I’m not sure whether it is pure genius or a product of my creative limitations, but it seems to be working. The thing is – when I get an idea for a story, it usually goes like this:

  • Thematic image and general premise – aka A visual and a one-liner ‘this is a story about…’

    Since I don’t want to give away the juicy details of the new WIP just yet, let me show how this would work if I was writing Sons of Anarchy … (bear with me, it’s been a while since I’ve watched it and the memory may be rusty…)

    Jax and Tara

    I would picture that moment where Jax takes on the Presidency and Tara stands behind him as his Old Lady, a corruption of two individuals who had the potential to escape a violent and toxic environment but have ended up as the next generation of everything they didn’t want to be – Clay and Jemma.
    That image also gives me my premise – the story of a son who seeks to escape the corrupted legacy of his father, who finds that escape in the return of an old girlfriend, but who ends up corrupted and corrupting her in his efforts to escape. Like struggling in quicksand – it only conspires to work against you.

  • That image and one-liner (okay, okay – one paragraph) give me everything I need up to the Midpoint – I get the status quo (Jax in the MC, Tara at the hospital), the hook (Jax finding his Dad’s journals), the inciting incident (reconnecting with Tara), the first plot point (going after Clay), the Midpoint (Jax and Tara as the new Clay and Jemma).

And that’s usually where the ideas run out – not because I can’t think of what happens next, but because there are so MANY paths this story can take. I generally know where I want it to end. I just don’t know how to get to that end.

This is why the first half of my plot outline for the new WIP is pages long and full of cool details. And the second half is … um, well… it’s blank.

I was kind of worried about this, but then I figured it could be a good thing. And I figured this while watching my beloved Wests Tigers play (and lose) another game (don’t get me started…).

A book, much like a game of football, is a tale of two halves. Every team goes into a game knowing the starting point (kick-off) and the end goal (walking away with a win, preferably a crushing defeat, that supplies two points on the ladder and a fantastic points differential). There will also be a detailed game plan – based on last week’s performance, where they are on the ladder, what current issues/injuries are affecting them, players playing out of position, whether it’s a home game, what they focused on in training, etc, etc.

But that game plan is only good up to the half time siren.

You walk into the sheds at half time with a 20 point deficit, you shake things up. You end the first forty minutes with three major injuries and a player sent off, and you start thinking twice about your earlier plan of putting on early points.

What it boils down to is this:

You can’t plan your second half until you know what position your first half has put you in. 

Same goes for stories. I’ve spoken about this before – sometimes the little details you use to fill in your plot outlining can introduce a range of subtleties and nuances that shift the direction of your story. In the beginning the shift is negligible – but as it continues on that same trajectory, the difference becomes more and more noticeable.

Tangent

It was the same with Divided Elements – what I had planned for my second half and what I executed were wildly different. In a good way. If I had stubbornly kept to the original game plan, I would have ended up with a incoherent, disjointed story with a lot of loose ends and an unsatisfying ending.

Which is why I am blissfully writing my way through the first half of this WIP without having a game plan for the second half. That can wait. I figure I will use the Midpoint as my new status quo and plot from there once I know my backstory (the first half).

What about you? If you are a plotter, do you plot the entire novel? And if so, do you ever allow yourself to change the plan late in the game?

Plotting to the Midpoint: Why you need a half-time plan