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The Play's the Thing

Amazing Stories columnist and fellow VPXV alum Chris Gerwel talks this week about The Care and Feeding of Chapter Breaks.

Chapter breaks are one of the tools writers use to form and direct the reader’s experience, and every break does, as Chris says, “bridge our emotional engagement with the chapter that follows.” That “bridge” is a role often overlooked, as the focus of chapter creation tends to be on its individual arc. But the ending of a chapter is the writer’s means of influencing how the reader feels beginning the next chapter. While chapter breaks in general are what controls a story’s flow, it is the chapter’s final paragraph, sentence, and word that control the story’s pull.

It’s easy to think of the chapter’s end as the conclusion of the action. Truly, that’s the sort of ending that should be used most sparingly. Instead, chapter endings should happen in the middle of movement, before the final actions, near the moment of revelation. Those can be expressed with a bang or a whisper, with speed or caution, but not a neat wrap-up of all that has gone before.

Before I thought to be a writer, I worked as an actor and educational outreach performer focused primarily on the works of Shakespeare. I spent five years performing, assisting, or directing Shakespeare–everything from a few scenes for prison outreach programs to full length productions with regional theater companies. Before that, I performed in community theater and semi-pro productions for ten years. What that gave me is a writerly mindset that wants to structure stories as scenes and acts.

I often advise beginning writers to read and watch plays as a means to studying story structure. Plays are structured in deliberate acts as well as scenes–giving the director/actor/reader concrete cues as to where emotional highs and lows are to be placed, even inserting an intermission when the audience is intended to consider and discuss how what has already happened will control what is yet to come. Internalizing the successful flow of one scene to the next, feeling the difference between scene and act, improves one’s ability to pull the reader along chapter to chapter.

Watching plays–particularly the same play performed by different companies–gives a range of ideas about transitions between scenes. Has the director chosen a full and silent blackout, as a writer might choose an abrupt ending for a chapter? Did another director choose the end the same scene with a slow fade, a lingering gaze between the actors, and few sad notes from a flute? How did you, the audience member, experience the next scene differently?

Watching movies… Okay. If you’d rather. But there are so many advantages to be gained from live theater, I wouldn’t call it an even trade-off. I’ll talk about what I see as those advantages in future posts. Am I biased? Probably. I’ll accept that.

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Blair MacGregor
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