Friday, June 17, 2011

Zette's Take: Chapters

From For Blog

Remember the reader
There is one big reason to keep chapters in mind: the reader. Most people don't have the time or inclination to sit down and read an entire book in one sitting. They look for the best place to take a break. This is a problem for writers because while you want to give them such a spot, you don't want to make it too easy by giving them a dull section in the story.

So it's a thin line between 'here is a place to stop' and yet keeping the 'OMG what happens now! feeling.' You don't want readers to stop just anywhere because they will choose what they feel is a low ebb in the story. If you give them convenient breaks, but at the height of story action, they are more likely to pick the book back up. And that means they'll pick up your next book as well.

I've had more than one person point out that Terry Pratchett doesn't use chapters, but this isn't true. Pratchett, being a true wizard at his art, has only hidden them from immediate view. If you have any of his books, go pick one up. Flip through a few pages. You will notice that every now and then there are extra lines between paragraphs marking the changes.

But those are scene changes, you say. Well, so are most chapter breaks. So whether you do the breaks in a traditional, new page/chapter number style or not, you should still be aware of them. In my opinion, anything longer than about 100 pages needs these break points for readers.

But how to do them wisely? Some people think that a good way is to break out each day into a chapter, but this is usually the most dull, worst way you can do it. It would mean starting with someone waking up and ending with them going to sleep. How dull is that? It doesn't matter how exciting the rest was if you always leave them sleeping. This doesn't mean you can't ever stop with your character falling face-first onto a bed, asleep before he hits the pillow or staring at the ceiling trying desperately to sleep.

Use such things wisely.


Scenes are a convenient first step in finding break points, but in order to do so, you have to understand the function of a scene. They are combinations of time, place, characters and events. The last is really the most important aspect.

Something happens in a scene. It can follow a character through several places (say someone running away from danger) as long as the focus is on the event. It can be a single location where a character meets with several others in succession. In rare occasions, a single location may see several characters pass through without someone to link them all, but this is dependent on the narration of the novel. If you have a first or third person narration, for instance, someone has to be there to witness the events, which means, of course, that you have that single focus after all.

Pacing and Building Tension

Chapters are the best way to work with pacing. You have to spread out the events that happen within your story in a logical progression from bad to worse. One level leads to another, building the tension. The trick is to make these things build slowly throughout the novel.

Pacing is the easier part. You know you want to go from point a to point z in the story. Even if you don't outline, you can still see that there will be a set number of problems along the way and that some will be worse than others, but the absolute worst problem has to be faced at the end of the story.

I outline. This might not appeal to you, but remember that outlines take a lot of different forms. Sometimes I write complex, scene-by-scene outlines complete with snippets of conversation. Other times I write a line or two per chapter just so I know where I want to go with a scene. Some people can keep track of things without a problem and keep the entire novel in their head, leaping from spot to spot, going back, filling in . . . I am not one of them.

Think of your chapters as little stories. Not complete tales, like a novel, but rather little pieces of a life. These should be exciting moments in which something important happens and we can follow it through to some logical stopping place, even if the event carries on to other chapters. What happens will go on an affect other parts of the story, but right now, you want to focus on that event and make it work the way you want it to. Focus on this little piece. You can hide clues to surprises here. You can play down or play up a situation to hide the importance of something else going on.

Once again, the word here is focus. By creating thinking in terms of chapters, you are training yourself to focus on each obvious step rather than on the whole. Knowing the general plan of the story from start to finish is important, but also remember how each step has to carry its own weight. You cannot gloss over any section of the story. If you find yourself doing so, then ask if you really need it at all. Ask it of all scenes and every chapter.

Also ask if the transition from one chapter to the next is logical. Sometimes those transitions are not adjacent in the case where you are following more than one storyline. Other times, when moving and deleting material, the logical links get lost. Look at the previous chapter to this storyline and make certain your story hasn't taken the kind of leap which needs at least a line of explanation. Even something as simple as 'Four days later, Tom sat in a café musing over his good fortune' is enough to get the reader settled into the time and place.

If you have trouble reaching the end of the story, or if the story wanders all over the place with no coherent plan, you need to take control. You don't have to write a full-fledged outline. And get over the 'it ruins the story for me' fantasy that says you don't have to work any harder than you already do. That's an attitude, guys. It's in your mind and you have control over it. I'm not saying it will be easy, but if you want to write stories that work, and you are having trouble getting there now, then you must start trying new things. Or stay stuck where you are. Or give up. Those are the choices.

There are two ways to work with pacing and create tension in a book. One way is the start at a low ebb and head straight up to the highest point of conflict. This is an easy way to plot. It means no side trips and one thing leads directly to another, getting more and more troublesome throughout the story.

The second way is the rollercoaster ride. This has little hills and valleys -- the hills are high points of conflict while the valleys are little dips and 'relative' calm spots in the story. Nothing, of course, is every truly calm and peaceful, though. The 'calm' points are excellent places to build inner conflict and build up the tension of 'what next' by hinting at outside problems, or bring news of them in ways that do not immediately affect the characters. After all, your antagonist is likely doing other things, right?

Interweave story lines

Which brings up another reason why chapters can be important: If you have two or more storylines going, interweaving them through chapters is important to help the reader track what's going on. Several storylines means focus on multiple POVs. Some people change POVs in the middle of a scene or in the middle of a chapter. I find this annoying as a reader (though many do not), so I structure my work to have POVs in different chapters.

This helps in a couple ways. First, I can easily see if my main POV is holding up his end of the story. If someone else is hogging page time, I have to decide why this happened. Is the other person more interesting? Or is my main POV just not taking on enough of the load? Do they need to be equal? If so, are both storylines equally important to the resolution of the final conflict?

Chapters for individual POV/storylines also allows me to make certain the two (or more) stories are not diverging too far from each other and they're all headed towards the same spot -- though that might not be a physical spot, but rather the same moment of closure with the same level of impact.

Focus on specifics

Chapters also allow you to focus on specifics. Sometimes it's good to narrow down the view of your story to a place and/or event which needs special care for the sake of the story. Well, of course it's for the sake of the story, right?

Sometimes the writer becomes so enamored of part of the creation that he loses track of the bigger picture. In an odd way, chapters can help pinpoint those problem spots because they bring them into focus easier. It isn't just a scene lost in the plethora of other scenes: this is an individual piece that is there, standing on its own. Look at it. Turn it over. Examine it from a different angle. And always ask yourself what this does for the story. Why should the reader care?

The reader has an entirely different perspective from the writer. We are in love with our worlds, characters and plots and if you aren't, find out why and fix it. You must be drawn to write what you do, and you may not love a dark tale of horror, you must still love the ability to tell it well.

As writers, we see special things in odd places and want to throw light on that little corner of our wonderful creations. Sometimes it works. Other times, it distracts from the story. You have to learn which is which. One way to tell is nothing that we are giving a lot of attention to something that has little or no impact on the story.

Whatever you do, remember to keep up the story tension. No matter how you write your scenes, you must give the reader a good reason to wonder what happens next. No, more than that, you have to keep them wondering what exciting or interesting thing is going to happen next. Where is this all going to lead?

If they have to set your book down, make certain they want to pick it back up again.

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