Monday, July 14, 2014

Crafting Your Best Story - Writing Tip#16 - Chapters & Scenes

If you’ve ever read a book you’ll know that a novel is a series of scenes strung together to make the whole. These scenes are often grouped together to make chapters. So how does a writer know how many scenes to include in any given chapter? How long should a chapter be? What should be in it? If you’re like me, you kind of just go by your gut. I think the chapter should end here. Or here. Or maybe here.  But maybe I should add some more—is it long enough? Or maybe it’s too long? Or????
I had an epiphany a while ago on how to write a chapter. I’m not saying it’s an original idea, just that it was the first time I’d thought about it. It came while reading The Art & Craft of the Short Story by Rick DeMarinis, while simultaneously reading The Atonement by Ian McEwan.
Here’s the epiphany: Chapters are short stories.
A short story is a fictional telling that runs between 500 and 2500 words.  It has a beginning a middle and an end. The beginning, as Rick DeMarinis teaches, drops the reader into a situation that has a history. A chapter has a history (unless it’s the first chapter). The history lies in all the chapters previous, and also in things the writer knows about the back story of the character and situation. And according to DeMarinis, the ending has to illuminate all that has gone on before.
I couldn’t really encapsulate what he had to say about the middle but I’ll say that the middle is comprised of well crafted tension, conflict and detail that propels the reader to the ending.
As mentioned, I happened to be reading The Atonement at the same time, and it occurred to me that McEwan’s chapters are exceptionally well written short stories. When strung together they made a bestselling novel. I took this approach to chapter writing while working on my latest wip. With each new chapter I’d think about the character involved and what was to happen. Like any good short story it must have a creative, intriguing opening line. The middle must be rich with detail and build tension. It can’t have a limp ending.
The beginning of a chapter must hook and the middle go “up hill.” The difference in a chapter ending and a short story ending (or novel ending, unless you want a cliff-hanger), is that you want to stop at the top of the hill, at the height of the tension, if you want to the reader to turn the page and start reading the next chapter.
One chapter ends and the next begins at the top of the bell curve.

I came across this graph from the crafty writer, who drew this to illustrate how to write short stories. I think it works to illustrate how to write chapters as well. 

She describes short stories as a slice of life that when strung together make the whole life story, or in our case, the whole novel.
Of course there will be some story styles when short, more dramatic chapters work, but this is a good principle to keep in mind when crafting scenes and chapters.

How about you? Do you have your own approach to chapter writing?

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