Friday, October 20, 2017

How to Build a Chapter--A Cool New Template to Try for Any Genre

This week I'm teaching on Madeline Island, a beautiful spot on Lake Superior off the shore of northern Wisconsin.  Yesterday my class of ten writers explored a new template I've been working with for building chapters.  As a review for them and a gift for you, I thought I'd share it.
 
Many of my book-writing students, as well as private clients, even those already published, struggle with how to build strong chapters.  Over the past year, I've been studying different templates for chapter building.  Asking myself some hard questions:
 
1.  Do chapters require the same components in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction? 2.  What makes a chapter work?  
3.  What's missing, when it doesn't quite?
 
Last year, a writing friend introduced me to Shawn Coyne's book, The Story Grid. Coyne offers a template for suspense novels that helps fill gaps for many writers of that genre (thrillers, domestic suspense, true crime).  I worked with it, got a lot of help, then ran into walls.  My new novel, Outlaws, is not just a mystery; it also explores the relationship of two estranged sisters brought together by a daughter.   My more "literary fiction" bent felt cramped within the model. 
 
When I tested the Story Grid on the more reflective or information-based genres of memoir or nonfiction, it didn't work as well either.   So I began searching for a more universal model that writers in any genre could use.
 
Benefits of Chapter Templates
Free-flow writing and intuitive decisions about chapter size and where to break them--great when you're drafting or just beginning to revise.  Using the intuitive side keeps the left brain from smothering the subtler levels of story as they emerge.  
 
Early on, you may have some idea of how the accumulating pages could break into chapters.  But, unfortunately, most writers never move out of the go by how it feels mode when revising, and their chapters stay stuck in early structure decisions.  Either they've broken the manuscript into uniform segments, about 10 pages on average, which they decide are good chapters.  Or they choose arbitrary breaks to give the reader a pause.  Neither makes for good chapter structure.
 
As I studied successful chapters, I saw there was a clear pattern.  I crafted this template and tested it with private coaching clients and my classes.  So far, it's held up.  It's solved chapter-structure dilemmas in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. 
 
Your writing exercise this week is to test it out with one of your not-quite-there chapters and see what you think.
 
Five Components of Successful Chapters  
I found five components exist in most successful chapters.  Here they are and how they're used.
 
Opening setup.  A question or quest opens most strong chapters in any genre.  A dilemma starts the momentum and carries the reader forward into the chapter's main action or development.  It might be as complex as someone wakes up that morning and discovers her mate is not in bed or in the house.  Or an invitation comes.  Or the doctor calls with news.  Or a meeting begins, someone leaves, someone arrives.   
 
The opening setup usually reflects the false agreement of the whole book in some small way.  It gives a hint of what's to come.  In class we looked at a chapter from Sunnybrook:  A True Story with Lies by Persimmon Blackwell, where the opening setup up is preparing for an interview, and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, where the opening setup is the girl waking up and needing to pee but she can't wake her parents because they sleep with guns by their bedside.
 
In a nonfiction book such as Complications by Atul Gawande, the opening setup is the start of a surgical procedure.
 
In all three examples, a quest is begun, however large or small.  Because the chapter presents a successful opening setup, a hint of conflict is also presented:  Will the quest succeed?  What else might happen (or go wrong)?
 
Acceleration.  After the opening setup, usually within a page or less, there's some acceleration of the problem.  Things do get more complicated.  This is important:  it gives the chapter momentum.  The reader keeps reading to find out more.
 
Many writers pause to deliver lengthy backstory or information here.  Some is OK, but be cautious about more than a few lines or paragraphs.  It'll drop the tension you've created with the opening setup.  As an editor, when I review manuscripts that offer pages of backstory, I know the chapter is not successfully structured.  As a reader, I often skip or put the book down just there.  
 
In Sunnybrook, the acceleration is the interviewee dressing in a way that covers the scars on her arms.  In Dogs, the acceleration is the girl waking her sister instead of her parents, even though she knows her sister is a risky bet too.  In Complications, it's revealed that the surgery is going to be tricky.
 
Dramatized action.  This section of a chapter covers the most real estate.  Pages, often.  Ideally, it's one scene in a specific moment of time and a specific place, not summarized but dramatized fully onstage in front of the reader.  If there is a sequence of moments, they link or build in tension, one to the next.  They are not unrelated or similar in tension level--that also drops the tension of the chapter and the reader feels we're hearing the same thing again and again.  In Sunnybrook, this is the actual interview.  In Dogs, this is the scene in the bathroom (a dark outhouse with scorpions and snakes).  In Complications, this is the procedure in all its gory detail.
 
Window of truth.  I found this present in so many books I explored.  It's almost a requirement, now, for chapters I love in published books, but I've never seen it discussed in writing classes or craft articles.  I call it a "window of truth" because it connects back to the dismantling of the false agreement that starts the chapter.
 
Say the false agreement is the mental health care system is intact, as in Sunnybrook.  The window of truth is a one line sidebar where the narrator reveals that she knows that's not true--in a big way--and she's going to bust it open.  Say the false agreement is every woman (or kid) for herself in war-torn Rhodesia, as in Dogs.  The window of truth is two lines, where the four-year-old girl reveals that she wants help; she can't do it alone.  Say the false agreement in Complications is that surgeons are gods.  The window of truth busts this open when the surgery is complicated (hence the title) and surgeons are helpless if they hold to this superior belief.
 
It's not much.  It's potent.  It is placed towards the end of the chapter, usually, after we've experienced full dramatization of the question or quest.   
 
The closing setup.  In books, you don't end there, with a neat wrap up.  If you do, your readers won't turn to the next chapter, right?  They'll pause to reflect, set your book down, and maybe not pick it up again.  It took me many thousands of dollars in an MFA program to learn this:  book chapters, except the final chapter, must have a transition that leads to the next chapter.  They must leave something unresolved from the opening setup OR hint at a new dilemma, quest, or question. 
  
I often craft the closing setup at revision.  This kind of transition is often hard to see when you're just drafting.  After the whole-book structure is intact, and your chapters built successfully, it's easy to go back in and tweak the end of each chapter to include a closing setup line or paragraph.  
 
Hint:  the closing setup often loops back to the false agreement.  Not always, but often.  It can fully re-embrace the false agreement, solidifying it even more. 
 
In Sunnybrook, we learn the interviewee is given the job at the mental hospital, but the head psychiatrist doesn't know she is a former patient.  The closing setup is the question:  What?!!?  And we read on to find out how she manages.  In Dogs, the young girl lies when her father asks how she slept;  "like a log," she says, again pretending she can handle wartime life without complaining.  

This week:  See if one of your troublesome chapters can be reworked using this model.