Friday, August 15, 2014

How Chapters Are Built--What to Include, What to Skip, and How to Know If You Actually Have One



This week's post is part of a weekly lesson in my online book-structuring classes, Your Book Starts Here, Part 2, sponsored by the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  To find out more about the fall session of this class, click here.

My approach to teaching book-writing is built from my years of publishing, working as an editor, and teaching thousands of writers.  I used to think books were built from outlines.  I used to believe that books are most easily constructed when the writer knows exactly where he or she is going at the start.   

I don't buy that anymore--too many writers never finish their books.   

So I teach a different approach:  let the random, creative self explore first.  Then organize the explorations into a rough map to get the big picture.  Then build skills to refine and expand the material.  Finally, create your chapters.

This is radically different than many methods to book-writing.  And it may not appeal to you.  Most writers want to know exactly where they are going, when they begin.  But it's almost impossible to know where your book will take you on its journey, or so I've found.

For me, the freedom of exploring an idea must come first.  Then I need a glimpse of the larger structure, an image to write towards, as novelist Roxanna Robinson once said.  Even if that image gets changed, it keeps my goal of a whole book in sight.  I tracked my own experiences with writer's block for many years; they mostly happened whenever I got too hung up in the little moments of my story, the fine details.

A Chapter's Internal Pacing Informs the Narrative Arc
The inner story of a book is the transformation of a person, the main character or narrator, through a series of outer events.  Without a narrative arc, a book is just like reading a list of crises.  Readers want to witness growth.  The narrative arc is the journey of growth.

You can track the inner story, or narrative arc, of your whole book via your storyboard--click here for more about storyboards.  But each chapter must also contribute to that narrative arc, via its build up of scenes and tension.

Each chapter has a purpose, not just to provide information, but also to show the incremental steps a character (real or imagined) takes as they move through the story.

The movement will rarely be linear, straightforward, because a human journey is mostly one step forward, two steps back.  But movement has to be apparent to the reader to keep the arc alive.  This is what makes up the internal pacing, the perceived changes in someone's character.  The growth we track as readers. 
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that an "island" (thanks to Ken Atchity for that term) is a fragment of writing--it can be anything, really, a setting description, a flashback, whatever.  No limits.  Eventually islands might grow into scenes, which are developed islands, also called dramatic moments.  Let's start by defining the difference between a scene, or dramatic moment, and a chapter. 
 
What's a Scene?
One great definition of a scene is a moment when an emotion is articulated in some way, usually via action. 

In fiction or memoir, this might be a run-in between two characters.  Or a memory of a past event that still brings a surge of shame or delight.  Or a conversation where someone doesn't get their hopes realized--or does. 

Scenes are small time capsules.  They are potent because they contain more than is openly revealed. 

In nonfiction, a scene might be considered an anecdote that demonstrates the book's theory or a step of that theory.  For instance, a weight loss book might contain a scene where a man stands in front of a pastry counter at the local grocery store, calculating his chances of getting a doughnut and getting outside before his wife, shopping in another aisle, notices.  A nonfiction book on how to play the piano might contain "scenes" of information (like developed "islands") that explain the keyboard.

Important:  Scenes are not necessarily complete.  They don't require a beginning, middle, and end.  But they usually offer developed ideas, developed characters and setting and action or information.  Scenes often leave us hanging, which tells us there will be another scene later to finish the story.  We'll read on to find out where the thread continues. 

Chapters are very different.

What's a Chapter? 
A chapter is a sequence of scenes that carry the reader to some new level of understanding about the story or the book's topic. 


In books, chapters are less wrapped up--you want the reader to read into the next chapter, right?  Not close the book at the end of a chapter and perhaps not pick it up again.  William Goldman and David Morrell wrote this about chapters:  "Jump in late, leave early."  Those two ideas are so helpful to crafting strong chapters.

Jump in late, or "enter late," means to begin your chapter in the middle of the action, rather than with a preamble.  Why?  The reader gets engaged faster.   

They'll more likely read on.

Leave early means to end the chapter with a question, something unresolved.  Again, why?  Because this helps the reader want to start the next chapter immediately.  It creates a page-turner.

In nonfiction, a chapter concludes more overtly.  There's a hook to future material, certainly; otherwise, why would we read on?  But nonfiction chapters deliver information and there's a sense at chapter's end that we've received enough to ponder and absorb.  Nonfiction chapters often end with completion of
thought, while fiction and memoir leave something deliberately unfinished. 

So, as we build chapters, we need to consider three things:
1.  Choose an island or scene that jumps right into action.
2.  Have enough scenes that something changes in the character or narrator, creating a narrative arc.
3.  End with something unresolved.

These are the building blocks.  One long scene can create a good chapter, but it must satisfy these three requirements.

There's a fourth:  if you use scenes or islands, you must piece them together.  You must craft transitions between them so the reader follows along without any stumbles.

Creating Transitions between Scenes and Chapters  
Transitions are sentences, images, dialogue, repeated objects, a setting feature, and other elements that bridge two sections in a chapter.  They allow the reader to move smoothly between the emotions/meaning of one scene into the next.  


Example:  Oranges are peeled at the end of one scene and an orange glow is in the sky at sunrise in the beginning of the next.  These scenes might be in different times, even take place in different eras if one is a flashback, but the reader will be able to transition because of the repeating image.

Transitions are not just visual:  they can be smells, sounds, heat or cold, light or dark, a piece of furniture or a room or an object--whatever has meaning and can be repeated without too much fanfare.

The idea is to plant the image then return to it, creating a good transition as you do.  They are fun to think of--and worth studying in books you admire!  I bet you don't even notice them in these admired books at first.  That's good writing.