third draft theories

First, it’s probably safe to say that I’m feeling better. Thanks for the get-well comments, guys!

I’ve been going through my plot recently, as part of my scheduled plot-scrub (which is turning out to in fact be a beastly, terrible creature that seems determined to pin me down and chop me up– fie to whoever decided to hand that thing a chainsaw). After some study, I’m adding in another plotline, because I noticed that one of my protagonists seems to be lounging around when other characters aren’t looking. Add in another plotline, carefully consider the implications and how this will change the story… typical revision stuff.

But it also had me thinking about the structure of chapters, and how individual pieces (because chapters are pretty good examples of broken-up chunks of story) contribute to the overarching plot. While I’ve been re-planning chapters, inserting new ones, thrashing others, I’ve also been wondering what the best way to structure each chapter might be.

Simplistic as the idea is, what is a chapter, and what should it accomplish?

I don’t have the answer for that, of course. I’m not sure that there is one. But I do have some ideas, theories, some possibly even worth discussing.

A chapter should be enticing. The audience should want more. This is a cardinal rule of writing: make things that other people want to read. This point is entirely subjective; possibly the reasons we group books by genre. Fantasy, science fiction, and westerns are premises and settings, if you think about it. Romance, action, drama, suspense, and horror are plot and theme elements. This is why you can have a fantasy-action story, a scifi romance, a western horror, and other fun combinations (keeping in mind that setting seems to supersede tone in bookstores). While the genre lines don’t make complete sense in the matter of content, it’s really all reader expectation, desires to be filled. I don’t really like genre categories, but I think it’s important to realize what they really are: pre-defined tastes, not too unlike calling something sweet, salty, or chewy. Unfortunately, this ‘season to taste’ rule doesn’t help with the composition of a chapter.

As an aside, my personal solution to the problem of interest is: Think of book ending that would make you (the author) bounce up and down with manic glee. Go write. Try to get there.

What else should a chapter be? Why do we use chapters? Why not some other paragraph breaks, also used in fiction to end scenes, ect? Adult novels don’t seem to include a ‘table of contents’ anymore. Some chapters are titled, some are numbered. Some are neither. Some people write long chapters, others end them after only a few pages. Some use length to determine their chapters, others are fond of POV shifts and scene changes, while some use significant plot events.

I have a theory right now that when chapters are long and based on plot events, elements of short story form might be a very good way to construct them. You have your basic elements of plot: set up, rising tension, crisis, and resolution. While this works for a story, this could also be applied to the individual elements of the conflict in their own right, and if a chapter is being based around chunks of conflict, it might be a smart way to structure a chapter, daisy-chaining conflicts and resolutions with each other from chapter to chapter, introducing new problems after the minor climaxes.

Note: there is a difference between ‘resolution’ and ‘problems go away’. I once read a book where a chapter ended with a character learning a terrible secret, then getting pushed down several stories, maiming himself if he did manage to survive. Building tension, conflict, and resolution– just not a happy one.

That style, of course, would create something of a rhythmic motion to it, a lapping of waves on a beach, so to speak. It could be good, or it might not work. But it would almost certainly focus the chapter on at least one big problem, which immediately inserts tension into a story.

Any other thoughts on the use of a chapter? I’m particularly interested in thoughts on structure right now.

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2 thoughts on “third draft theories

  1. I like the idea of structuring chapters as tiles in a mosaic. Each is differently colored and uniquely shaped, yet placed together they form a unified picture. Best offhand example I can think of is Melvin Burgess’ Bloodtide (yes, I’m always pimping it out), in which the chapters switch from third person to first person and when in first person, often from character to character. Sometimes the POV in a chapter is from a main character; other times, one we never hear of again.

    With this lack of unity among the chapters, I was surprised at the cohesion of the story. I think it’s due to Burgess keeping the plot straightforward and avoiding any gotcha! moments, which would have turned it into a schizophrenic mess.

    It’s a chapter structure I want to try some time in the future, but one very hard to use well.

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