Hello again everybody.
Thanks so much for your very kind feedback about my previous post. For the record, no, I’m still not my usual super cheery amazing self, but it hasn’t gotten worse either. So onward we march.
I asked on Twitter for some blog topics, and got a few very interesting ones. One in particular stood out, because the minute I said, “Yeah I like that” quite a few people (twelve I think) were very excited in response.
So let’s look at the suggested topic:
Josh is curious about what a “good” chapter looks like. And while it’s super easy and incredibly tempting to tell him not to think in terms of good and bad, because they’re crazy subjective, that’s not going to help him. And it is worth noting that a chapter does have a structure, and ideally that structure should help, not hinder, whatever’s going on.
The problem though is that not every chapter in every book in every genre by every writer is going to be the same. Sometimes we’re reading love stories, sometimes it’s horror, sometimes it’s a lengthy rant about the dangers of single ply toilet tissue. Further, the second question about exciting parts of a larger story is kind of misleading. Exciting (like good and bad) is subjective, and there are some parts of some stories that you don’t want to be exciting. For instance, I don’t want to see excitement and/or tension in the part of the chapter where the hero falls asleep or the heroine washes her hair. It’s not exciting. It might be really nice for the character to do, but it doesn’t need to rivet me to the chair, because I can deal with a sentence or two about sleep and hair care, and as a writer, I’m not worried that at the first mention of something not-as-exciting as other parts of my book, people are going to flee and hate me. So let’s look at the components of chapters in terms of when they work to serve the story versus when they don’t.
Positive Elements In A Chapter
Does this chapter introduce new information? If we’re telling a story with a plot (doesn’t matter what it is), does this chapter give us more detail? A chapter is a step forward in information, we should be able to move from this chapter to the next one and say we learned something we didn’t know before. Yes, this chapter might not be a step forward chronologically in the story, time might not advance, but what the chapter tells us about the characters, the plot, the created world, should be new and in addition to what we already know. Now you can make a case and bring up a good point about first chapters, since there’s nothing new in front of a first chapter, but the rule still holds true here – only instead of relying on whole chapters before it, first chapters are built on a sentence-by-sentence case, where we gain information a discrete unit (sentence) at a time.
Does this chapter cement what we already know (or think we know)? Whether a first or fiftieth chapter, once we see this chapter is providing new data, we have to make sure this chapter is also affirming existing data. This is often called continuity, but outside of fiction this also pertains to contradictory instructions (where you earlier said X but now you’re saying Y) and shifts in assumption (suddenly the author assumes the reader knows more because the reader is deeper into the document). Since our most fundamental building block of knowledge is a word, because it evokes a concept and a memory and a feeling all simultaneously, and we compile words into sentences to give them vectors and focus, we have to be able to trust that the application is constant, that is, that the word we used back seven pages ago still means the same thing it does later on, unless we’ve expressly and obviously changed its definition. Inconsistency in language means that we aren’t conveying in an easily understood way and that our readers will possibly not want to keep reading because “all of a sudden the book got weird/dense/strange”. There’s often a whole editorial pass for continuity, because leaving plot holes and resorting to hand-waving is ultra lazy. Also, since the writer can’t be everywhere constantly to explain things to people whenever they get to a particular part of the story, why not make it easier on them by just avoiding this potential problem from the start?
Is this chapter a complete package? Chapters should start somewhere, even if the action being described is carried over from previous chapters (like chapter 4 opens with the car crashed into a pole, because chapter 3 ended with the car skidding on the highway) or that the chapter is called “Combat” and contains all the game rules for fighting. It has to start somewhere, and even if you’ve established some really funky variable chronologies in your story, there still has to be a starting point, even if a particular starting point differs from others throughout the book. In fact, it’s impossible to have a chapter that doesn’t have a starting point. Likewise, chapters should have endings, sometimes with summaries of what you’ve just covered (like study questions) or a push into the next action (cliffhanger) or just the cessation of that line of thought. Chapters have to end somewhere just like they have to start somewhere. The trick isn’t in having them or not having them, the trick is in knowing where the story is served best with those starts and stops. Manipulation of those starts and stops across the span of chapters is a lot like the push/pull we’ve discussed elsewhere about carrying the reader forward throughout the flow of the words.
Things You May Want To Avoid In A Chapter
Does the chapter do too much? As said above, chapters have beginnings and ends. They should ideally contain a progression of material, either introducing it fresh (as a first chapter would) or perpetuating it until it can be closed later (the way a middle chapter would) or tying things up (the way an ending would). Not every chapter in fiction is going to do all three of these things, of course, but it’s important to recognize the role a particular chapter plays as introducer, perpetuator or closer, and making sure the chapter does those things. When a chapter oversteps, and information loses its individuated spot (like cars double parking), then you start creating situations where material isn’t given appropriate weight by the reader, because they have to squeeze more stuff into their head, because you keep shoveling it onto them. This discourtesy, this lack of respect, most often comes up as nervousness on the part of the writer, the idea that they have all this information that they swear they prove its all relevant and has to be used right-this-second, and if they don’t get it out right there in that particular part of that exact page, it has no other place in the book and everything (including all of time and space) will fall apart as your created world is torn asunder. Which isn’t true. It’s in fact fabricated bullshit you’ve convinced yourself is super mucho important because things are going well in your writing and you’re freaking out. You have all the pages in the world to get these ideas out, and even if you’re working within a constraint of a word cap on a project, chances are you have the ability to do multiple drafts and possibly even an editor to help you find the best-fit for all the ideas, even if the best-fit for that idea over there might be not-in-the-thing-you’re-writing-right-now.
Does the chapter repeat other chapters? At some point, and I don’t know when it was, our attention spans took a nose-dive. Maybe it was when it became super easy to look at porn. Maybe it was whenever we all decided to stop wearing hats. Maybe it was when we invented the machines that propel us into outer space. But collectively, specially, our attention span tapered right off. Some people will go all gloom-and-doom at this notion and say things like “You only have three seconds to keep someone’s attention because they’re soooo busy!” (I really hope you made up your own arm waving at that one) but when you later question them as to what people do that has them so busy, the answers seem to all suggest that a lot of time is consumed in a lot of short actions like looking at phones, blinking at monitors and feverishly responding to other stimuli. To compensate for all this, we started repeating ourselves, as in the case where you can post tweets to facebook and to your blog and you can stick blog posts to twitter and facebook and other blogs … all that. This isn’t a bad thing, when it serves a purpose (like getting information out quickly to a wide audience), but when the same information shows up again and again, it’s annoying. Yes, we get it. This thing got written. Yes, you said she was blonde already. Yes, I know, the gun has only one shot left. Recycling this information more often than not is proof that the writer really doesn’t trust their reader to remember things they’ve read, and/or to some degree, that they don’t trust themselves to establish a fact and then leave it alone with bringing it back up. There is also something to be said for over-saturation, where a detail too oft mentioned loses the specialty it needs. If the response to a fact is a huge sigh, chances are you’ve said it enough times.
Does the chapter fit? In the progression (not arrangement, I don’t mean something arbitrary like in a game or manual) of the story, does the particular chapter belong in the space you’re assigning it? Does, for example, that chapter about the kid bored at school belong between the two chapters of the kid’s parents fighting robotic farm animals? Would it make sense to hold off showing what happens to the protagonist trapped on the roof (for a whole chapter) because you totally want to show the flashback of how the protagonist first learned to love being on a roof ? (by the way, the flashback-as-teaching-tool-as-a-chapter is way super totally overused, especially if you bring us out of the flashback at chapter’s end and practically quip). Stories, remember, are progressions of actions and emotions, carrying the reader from their starting point, educating them and delivering them the world you built and leaving them back in their world, changed by experience of sharing yours. Huge bumps in that road jar the reader, and too many times jarred can lead the reader to lose interest. Make sure there’s a clear path from A to B to C.
Josh, I hope I answered your question. I know it probably wasn’t the answer you looked me to give, but I am partial to this one.
Everyone, stay well, keep writing and be good to one another.