Firefly Friday – Are you giving readers an excuse to put your book down?

Welcome to the next installment of Firefly Friday, where we examine a writing tip chestnut and marry it to my favorite TV show Firefly to illustrate the tip. Today’s topic: Scene and chapter breaks.

One of my favorite writing craft books is James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish). It is so useful in understanding the framework necessary to construct a plot. One of his tips is to make your scenes HIP. That is, start with a Hook, amp the Intensity during, and end with a Prompt. Note that he’s not talking about chapters, but scenes. Sometimes you could have several scenes in one chapter, and it’s important to make these HIP too. I added this to my checklist I inserted before each scene during revision, and checked off if I had each. If I didn’t, I dug back into the scene to figure out how I could.

For prompt, Bell advises that you have a “read-on prompt” which could be one of the following:

  • impending disaster
  • portent
  • mysterious line of dialogue
  • a secret revealed
  • and several more, but I’m not sure of copyright laws on this, so I won’t copy any more from his book.

The point is, you want to give them something that will make them want to keep reading. This is especially important when the scene ends a chapter.

So, to illustrate this lesson, here’s a scene from the episode Out of Gas. In this scene we start with Mal left alone on the ship. Their ship had a part blow, which knocked out their life support. The others have left in a last ditch effort for help and he waits onboard (the captain going down with the ship) in case their distress beacon is heard out in the middle of nowhere. He’s freezing, he’s fallen asleep, and then a call comes through.

In the commentary, show writer Tim Minear talks about how he wanted to break for commercial right when the rescue ship looms into view (3:35). Joss Whedon disagreed. Tim says that he fought hard with Joss on this, but that Joss insisted he keep going. There was no “jeapordy” at that point. Joss won out, and Tim agrees it was the right choice to end it where they did, which is when they hold him at gun point (5:09).

Now Mal’s in jeopardy and the viewer wants to come back after the commercial to see what happens. The earlier spot, while dramatic and a great tight shot, held too much hope for the scene. Too risky for the viewer to think “oh yep, he’s getting rescued, what’s going on in baseball world? {click}”

The other part of this scene that is useful to watch is how it illustrates Mal’s character and their world. Tim Minear talks about this in the commentary: Mal’s almost out of oxygen but he’s still suspicious and has the strength to stand up to them while discussing arrangements: “and I do expect to see that engine part before I open the door” (4:40)

Fan of the show? Have you learned any good lessons from the show I haven’t covered?