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? ūüôā )

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 ūüôā

Humans love to categorise Рwe 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 Рthe 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

Form Follows Function – The Ongoing Process of Structuring Your Novel

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

It is a common misconception amongst writers that the structuring process is an activity undertaken only at the beginning of the writing process. Structuring is firmly located after generating your story idea and definitely before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). After your structure is developed, it’s just a matter of using the blueprint to herd the plethora of chaotic words, sentences and paragraphs into a coherent story. Right?

Hmmm, maybe not.

 

Every new beginning…

As you know, I recently hit the¬†midpoint¬†of Divided Elements, my first novel.¬†In many ways it felt like I had finished a mini-novel – there was a full character arc, an ending with clear references to the beginning, major conflict and a very definite sense of beginning, middle and end. But as Dan Wilson sang, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” and Maria Von Trapp mused, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window”, the¬†ending of this mini-novel is just the catalyst for the next mini-novel, the closed door to¬†the first half of the story just the¬†opened window of the second half.

Don’t get me wrong – I was prepared for this. I had diligently structured my novel from¬†the¬†first to last scene and had a very clear outline for how the second half of Act II and all of Act III would play out. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was how the fleshing out of the first half outline – with new characters, interesting dialogue, hidden motivations and complex character reactions – would create an internal logic that was completely at odds with this outline.

Suddenly, I found that the earlier reactions of¬†my protagonist were hinting¬†at a vulnerability I hadn’t planned for, a vulnerability that would take her on a different journey of discovery from the midpoint towards her “all is lost” moment. I discovered¬†secondary characters with motivations and secrets that would cause different opportunities and threats for the protagonist in reaching her end-goal. I found that the dialogue and interaction between characters were creating an unexpected dynamic between them that would, in turn, create new and unexpected tensions over the following scenes and chapters.

In summary, I learnt that¬†the micro-level stuff – the stuff you can’t plan and outline – was having major consequences for the macro-level structure.¬†

My response? I rewrote the outline for the next half of my novel Рa process I am still playing with. I am using my newly-developed knowledge of my characters, world and conflicts to reshape the rest of the story. And this knowledge can only come with a deep and intimate understanding of your story Рsomething you can never have at the beginning of your writing process, when characters, events and tensions are just ideas floating in your head.

In trying to capture the importance of how the detail of the early scenes sets the logic for the following scenes, I was reminded of how, in 1896, proto-modern architect Louis Sullivan famously argued that form follows function.

In his classic (albeit prosaically-titled) essay on The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, he wrote:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

In other words, it is paramount that your writing follow a consistent, internal logic Рthat your creativity in the writing process (the form) follows a structural integrity that is both continuous and progressive across the full narrative (the function). 

In order to achieve this continuous and logical progression of the narrative, you may find yourself (like me) needing to review and restructure your novel outline. In this way, novel structuring is not a static process undertaken only at the beginning of a novel’s development, but a dynamic process that should be undertaken regularly and used a tool to strengthen the internal logic of your narrative.

Let me know what you think – do you find yourself changing your novel outline or structure because of micro-level details in earlier scenes or chapters?

Form Follows Function – The Ongoing Process of Structuring Your Novel