Is Your Scene Break a Lying, Cheating Fraud?

This week’s video describes a fabulously gripping scene break hook that actually does more harm than good.

Video Transcript:

Any author worth his salt knows the scene break is dangerous ground. Any time you give readers an inkling of an excuse to set down your story, you’re in peril of losing them altogether. Who knows what fascinating stuff they may find to keep them from returning? Chocolate pudding? That latest rerun of the Dick Van Dyke Show? A good ol’ snooze? Whatever the distraction, it’s your enemy. So you fight back by ending your scenes with killer hooks.

Instead of ending your scene with the mundane, “Eudora went into the kitchen to make an egg salad sandwich for lunch,” you’re going to want to go for something more along the lines of, “Jamie burst into the kitchen, grabbed Eudora by the shoulders, and yelled, ‘The cops have come for us!’” Exciting, right? Exciting enough to keep readers from dropping your book and heading to the fridge for that last cup of chocolate pudding, right? It’s all pretty darn good…. until your reader reads on to the next scene and discovers Eudora and Jamie weren’t ever in danger of being arrested. Rather, as it turns out, the cops want their help in an investigation.

There’s nothing wrong with this plot development. It offers all kinds of interesting possibilities. The problem is none of those possibilities fulfill the promise of the hook at the end of the previous scene. In other words, in order to get readers to read on to the help-the-cops scenes, you had to lie to them. You’ve faked them out by making them think something interesting was about to happen—when, really, it wasn’t.

By using a bait-and-switch technique of this sort, you may well get readers to jump that scene break and keep reading. But you’re also likely to subtly—if not overtly—undermine their confidence in your storytelling. As authors, we need to play it straight with our readers. If your next scene isn’t exciting enough to entice readers into reading it, you’d probably do better to rework it, rather than tricking readers into thinking it’s something it’s not.

Tell me your opinion: Do you think lying scene breaks are worth the risk?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. The close cousin to the lying scene break is the “danger resolved in the first sentence of the next chapter” scene break, which I’m seeing more and more in fantasy (also, True Blood; someone’s about to die at the end of every episode, and two minutes after the start of the next episode everyone’s fine). Not only does this leave readers annoyed at the author’s dishonesty, but, after someone is saved in two sentences for the twentieth time between chapters, danger loses all of its tension.

  2. I’ll let you know when my book comes out and I get reader feedback ~_^

    But seriously, I only do it once, and it’s not quite so simple as “LOOK OUT! Ahh, just kidding.” Does anyone enjoy the “hey you got something on your shirt…BOP!” joke once they’re past a kindergarten level of understanding? Of course not: it’s humiliating, and makes the bopper kind of a jerk.

    But if the protagonists are drawn along a mis-lead path, it’s only fair that they take the reader with them. I think you’re not talking about that. So no, I wouldn’t say lying scene-breaks are worth the risk ^_^

  3. @Sam: Definitely. If the only point of the drama is to trick readers into reading on, it doesn’t matter if the danger was true or not. There must be a payoff.

    @Daniel: Fooling readers – not so good. Fooling protagonists – ah, well, that’s a whole ‘nother ballgame! In tight POV situations, we’re free to fool the readers just as far as we fool the characters.

  4. Lying is probably not a good idea as it will eventually turn readers off like the little boy who cried wolf. But what if Jamie had good reason to believe the cops were there to arrest them—they’d done something in secret, now the secret is about to break open—but it just turned out the cops were only there for information? Would that add to the tension, having the readers worried along with Jamie and Eudora they had been discovered, or would it annoy readers when the actual arrest doesn’t come until later?

  5. Actually, that would be an excellent way to not only ramp up the tension beyond the obvious in my proposed scene break, but also to add layers of conflict. So long as the threat of Jamie and Eudora’s misdeeds being discovered paid off later in the story, it would work out perfectly.

  6. I don’t tend to use suspense in scene transitions. While I don’t think they’re leaving the reader without a pull to go on, they’re often something like, “Her mother nodded and smiled one of those smiles Jinxx knew people gave when they were trying to pretend to be happy.”

  7. In a subdued (dare I say, literary) sense, that could still be considered suspenseful, since you’re leaving the characters hanging in a less-than-happy place that forebodes of worse things to come. It’s a great ending actually, since it gets the point across without needing to be in the reader’s face.

  8. KM,
    Great points here. I see this technique often in fiction. I like to employ the “just about” rule in my writing. I break a scene when something is just about to happen, or the main character has made a stunning revelation or an emphatic statement. I save the reaction for the next scene or chapter. I think the biggest caution about scene breaks is that the scene can’t have a dull or anticlimactic end. Thanks for sharing your insights. You’re right on target.

  9. Breaking at the point of disaster in a scene, just before the follow-up sequel, is almost always the best place to shut it down in a way that keep readers reading. Gotta keep ’em wanting more!

  10. I don’t think lying to the reader works over time, because it does get a bit never-cry-wolf. Unless that is the point, and the hook of the scene break is the anticlimax (seems to me there were a few of these in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books) and the suspense of wondering what crazy thing the author is going to throw at you next.
    I found one book by Italo Calvino, can’t remember the title off-hand, that did this every single chapter, leaving you with a cliff-hanger and then completely changing the story at the beginning of the next, so it became clear after four or five chapters that every cliff-hanger was going to just keep hanging, and I confess I stopped reading.
    Also, ending a chapter with a great hook makes it imperative to begin the next chapter just as strongly — if there’s no increase of tension from the level of the “hook” then that sucks the life out of the story as well.

  11. Do something like this one, and readers may not even notice. Do it a couple times, and they’ll probably forgive you. Make a habit of it, and they’ll not only quit reading, they’ll probably hate you enough to un-recommend your books to friends. Not good.

  12. I think it depends on the story and the scene break. It can work in certain circumstances, but it shouldn’t be overused.

  13. Being led to believe a turn of events is going to be exciting then having it fall flat is one of my pet peeves! I’ll put a book down fast over this sort of thing.
    I try to end my scenes just as I’ve upped the ante or added another layer of conflict–even if it’s a tiny one.

  14. I like trying to make my scene breaks at the minor peaks in the plot, the points where the suspense mounts, the risks ratchet up, and the antagonist gets more antagonistic. 😉

    I’ve always hated the false suspense in scene breaks. Especially in books that “everyone” talks about.

  15. @Melissa: The truth is: everything works once. Even the total no-nos can work on occasion. The trick is being able to recognize the appropriate occasion.

    @April: Leading the reader to expect big things, only to let them down, is just bad storytelling. We should always be upping the ante in every way possible.

    @Gideon: Every scene should have a rise in action. If we can break naturally at that rise, then lead into the payoff in the next scene, we’ll rarely lose or disappoint readers.

  16. Great advice!! I’ll have to check my breaks to make sure they both keep the pages turning and that the live up to the promise!!

  17. Lucky for us, this is an easy one to check off the ol’ list.

  18. That’s the lesson even some TV writers could learn. Take Steven Moffat and his series 6 of Doctor Who. (Spoilers ahead, so if you watch that series but haven’t watched S6 yet, don’t read on)

    The Doctor, the main character, dies in the series opener, but the other characters travel with his earlier version (see, it’s a time travel show, if you didn’t know yet). That earlier version of the Doctor doesn’t know yet he will die. We’re promised – both in-universe and out-of-universe, the main character will this time really die. The viewers wonder how does he get out of this, how will he be revived or something.

    And then the series finale happens and one of the most dreadful phrases of recent Doctor Who appears. “The Doctor lies”. Moffat – the writer – also lies. The character didn’t die at all, he used a duplicate to take his place. The whole emotional investment the viewers had in the show was one big, fat lie. I hated this development.

    You just plain don’t negate an emotional moment like this, but try explaining it to show’s fans who either love everything about it or, paradoxically, hate its guts.

  19. The TV format is often egregiously guilty of abusing the cliffhanger, IMO. The manipulation of story to stretch it into the multiple season format is one of the reasons I’m not really a fan of the medium.

  20. TV definitely has its own limitations, but that particular cop-out was really killing the story for me, a person who have watched that show since years and can’t miss an episode. Regardless of what one thinks of the medium, there’s a lesson to be learned from this particular instance.

  21. TV, despite its problems, also has a lot it can teach us about what it does right. The very fact that a show can keep viewers fanatically hooked for years means the writers are doing more than little right.

  22. Oh definitely, Doctor Who is definitely very good and most of the time, presents a quality we should find more often in modern TV. Every once in a while, however, it drops a stinker because just so many people written for it over its 50-year-long history.

  23. My theory is, get them to turn the virtual page, every time. Scene breaks in my world are largely artificial. In the 21st century, we’ll starting hearing people say, “It was so good, I couldn’t put my eReader down!!!”

  24. Scene breaks are still important, even in digital media. Some readers will quit reading on random pages (heaven forbid!), but many will wait until a scene break to put it down. It’s true that I, as a reader, do this less often with digital books, since I can’t always see where the next break will be. But I still do it.

    But, you’re right, so long as every page is gripping, scene breaks won’t even be a speed bump to readers.

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