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  1. #1
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Question What does a chapter consist of?

    I was asked this question recently by a writer friend who (I believe) is not on SFFWorld. He asked me in a post on Facebook so I had some time to think about my answer before replying. Still, I told him I about my standard number of 10--20 pages, or it could be one scene or multiple but that multiple scenes in one chapter should be related in theme, location, pov, etc. I thought I had covered all the bases but, in the last few days, I have returned to the question and put it into the context of my own writing.

    I have a story which I have had plotted out for several months but which I cannot seem to write a word of. The chapters are all broken up into single scenes. I wrote summaries for nearly all of them about 1/2 page in length. When I look back at them I cannot help but think the entire scene has already been written in that little 1/2 page. In third person, of course, and all Telling. They are NOT actual scenes. More like:

    "They started at Point A, then went to Point B, then Point D, but then had to go back to Point C because they realized they had skipped it. The instructions were very clear, they had to go to ever Point in order. All the while they were talking about John's dog and what it did to Jane's cat. They eventually got to Point G. Then they were tired and went home. (End Scene)"
    When I outline I will usually outline the highlights of the conversation about the dog and cat and, when writing the actual scene, I will expand from those highlights. I have none of these highlights in the summaries I have written. I tell myself chapters do not have to be 10 pages long, or even 5 pages. I tell myself what I told my Facebook friend. But when I look at the scene summaries all I can think is that any expansion will only make the I think this is seriously holding me back. I have written only two scenes (TWO!) on this book and, actually, I've started plotting Book 2. I even wrote the opening scene of Book 2! I feel ready to go with Book 2 but everything about it rests on Book 1. And I cannot write anything on Book 1.

    *Sigh* I think part of my problem may rest with the idea of what a chapter is. Does anyone else have any thoughts about chapters?

    ----------------
    Also, I searched and saw this thread on Chapters: Questions from a newbie already and found it to be a bit...supportive. But not in a way that is offering me support in my current quandary.

    I saw, too, multiple threads on chapter length, multiple pov's in chapters, and moving from an outline to a fully developed chapter. I am not interested in those as I do not have what I consider to be an outline, pov questions is another thread-worthy topic entirely for me, and chapter length is all about number of pages and while I am asking that I am asking about more as well.

  2. #2
    For me, chapters are a set of events you find relevant to tell about one or more characters, with a related theme. I tend to keep them short, because longer than that, your action is probably spread slow.
    Igor

  3. #3
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    You seem to be missing some text in your post.

    I seem to be saying this a lot lately -- you're looking at it backwards. You are looking at a chapter as something you have to do, a form you have to complete and manage, rather than as a simple tool you can use in whatever way you feel is helpful to present the narrative to the reader. You don't actually have to have any chapters in a novel. But you can get various effects if you use chapter breaks and beginnings. It can help with various structures. It is, for instance, an easy way to change pov, if you want to change pov that way, or to denote different time periods. Short chapters (5-10 ms. pages which boils down to 2-6 print pages usually) with single scenes or exposition produce different effects. Long chapters produce others. Long chapters with lots of section breaks, etc.

    For some authors, it is helpful not to have chapters at all when they write the first draft because it limits them. For others, designing chapters beforehand gives them narrative goal posts or helps them frame the story structure in their mind. What's in a chapter often gets changed around in rewrites.

    Thinking about broad story concepts is often more fun for your right brain than thinking about things in small detail. Having to sit down and write the small detail makes your right brain try to escape by thinking about Book #2 instead, and feeling that things have already moved on in your head now that you have a plan. That's not about chapters. It's about writing narrative and scenes. And it probably involves a bit of your Inner Weasel. So maybe for you, the key thing is not to have chapters at first. Maybe you should in fact throw out the outline altogether. If your right brain does not have to do the "homework" of writing exactly what you've outlined and instead can just play and interact with the left brain, possibly completely changing things from the initial plan, it might be happier writing narrative.

    Even if it isn't happy, making it sit there until it writes something should eventually get the wheels moving. It doesn't matter if it's crap, because it's draft. It doesn't even have to be complete -- it can still be those little fragments with notes to yourself, like "To Come: and then somehow he gets off the bridge." You'll go back and fill them in later, passing over and over until your brain coughs up something -- maybe something very different from the original fragments and notes. If your brain really, really wants to write Book #2 now? Try letting it write Book #2 for awhile. That may be what you need to do -- to work out stuff in Book #2 before you can write Book #1 because it shapes Book #1.

    As you write, you may find that you naturally write in segments that can become chapters or sections with section breaks in chapters, and that those may be long or short. Or you can divvy the narrative up into chapters later and clean up the beginnings and endings of the chapters because you've decided that frame looks nice.

    When plot comes to you easily -- and it does to some authors -- dealing with the actual words can be the scary sticky part. So you can try what bestselling fantasy author Tim Powers says is his process -- he makes deals with himself. He has intricate plots and he likes to outline. So then it's about expanding that outline. So he'll focus on writing a scene (not to be a chapter, just what he thinks comes next,) and he'll tell himself he can have a beer if he finishes the draft of the scene. It doesn't have to be good draft. He just has to finish one tiny bit. And then he can have a beer, or some other reward.

    Which relates to another famous anecdote which led to a guide on writing and creativity which may or may not be helpful -- Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. The story goes:

    Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"
    You know that you need to focus on each bird, just the bird, one at a time -- a scene here (one bird,) a bit of transitional exposition there (one bird.) Your brain needs to focus on one bird at a time, but is getting overwhelmed by the scope of the whole project. So bird by bird, beer by beer might be what you need to try.

    Also, please stop worrying about telling. "Show, don't tell" is a con that's been hustled to authors for a long time now and it has nothing to do with writing narrative. Notes to yourself aren't telling or showing -- they are notes, not narrative. Narrative is a mix of scenic imagery (the five senses) and exposition (character thought that is not five senses, abstract imagery, information, emotion, etc.) Sometimes you'll have more of one or the other or less, depending on your style, your needs and your sense of what is working or not. All the styles used in fiction writing work. Really, they do. You'll find yours. So stop trying to shoehorn yourself into a write by numbers idea of writing style (unless you're just trying out a style for a writing exercise or class assignment to get the juices going.) Let's not bring the writing instructor's hat or the editor's hat in when you haven't written more than 500 words of the thing yet.

    So go look for one bird -- probably best to start with a scene. Choose a scene you really like in Book #1 that you've outlined, or a scene in Book #2 which you've sort of outlined, or try a scene that hasn't been outlined at all and that you might not even use. Tell your right brain that you would like a scene please. Anything at all. Absolute crap. Let your left brain help in making choices but not be super critical about them. Try not to get too analytical. Don't think about chapters at all. And then when your brain produces words that more or less make a messed up, fragmented scene, give yourself a beer, or chocolate, or what have you. Then you do it again. And again. And try to find a way that your brain will enjoy it or at least put out. That will tell you a lot of things about yourself as a writer and what your process is and your style and what your story is actually about (which again, may be completely different from what you've so far outlined.)

  4. #4
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    Wow, KatG, that is exactly what I needed to hear. All of it was. Thanks. (On a side note, you are really good at doing that. How DO you do that?)

    So as not to quote everything, some stuff I thought about there were:
    • No Chapters at all--I immediately thought of Terry Pratchett. This works awesome for him. And as my story takes place from Autumn through to Spring, I have thought in the past about grouping all scenes from one month together. A season (Autumn, Winter, Spring) would not do half so well.
    • Powers' rewards system--I am totally doing this!! Peanut butter candies, that's my choice. Starting tomorrow when I wake up!
    • Lamott's birds--You're right. I am looking a lot at the whole thing and not at each individual scene and I am getting overwhelmed. That is also a major problem for me. I just spent 3 and 1/2 years on another series, had multiple problems and a number of partial solutions and now I am thinking I need to set it all aside. If I do I don't know if I will ever return to it and that committment of time and effort and seeing it come to what it has does frighten me off from future projects. But ideas won't stop coming and I am not a short story writer. So I just need to get over it, focus on each scene individually and write from there. Using Powers' rewards system will help with this.
    • Write Book 2--I only started Book 2 because I had a tiny spark of inspiration for the very last lines of Book 1. But I couldn't stop after I wrote them because I knew, just knew, that Book 2 picked up right there without missing a beat. The inspiration continued and it was a natural flow of words, characters, and story all coming together. Book 2 feels good and natural and lovely. Book 1 feels awful, confused and lost. I think I will allow myself to work on the actual writing of Book 2. I will get to know the characters, find my style for this series, find my voice, and then go back and work on Book 1 when I feel I am able. I will probably even work on both at the same time.


    I had a lot more thoughts but they are being pushed back for my subconscious to consider now. Overall, with this new series and a second I am working on, I am seeing my writing style and my voice changing completely from what it was before. It has not fully emerged yet and I am still trying to use my old style and voice. And that is not working. But I do not know how to do anything different so I keep trying. That has to stop. I think some of my plans from above can help with that and I do intend to use them.

    I will have to keep reading your post KatG. Every paragraph is a gold nugget for me right now. Thanks again.
    Last edited by RedMage; August 16th, 2012 at 01:27 AM.

  5. #5
    LaerCarroll.com
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    I'll second what Kat said. Read her advice over and over till it makes sense and sticks.

    Chapters are more of an aid to writers to help them organize their work. Readers don't notice them much if at all - if you've sucked them in and locked them into your story. A chapter ending is then just a page turn. Or maybe a good place to put down the book so they can run to the bathroom to relieve an overfull bladder.

    I think in terms of scenes: a narration of events with enough sensory detail to make the reader feel they are experiencing the story along with the main characters(s). They have a definite beginning and ending in time and space, though the scale may be milliseconds or millennia, and millimeters or light years.

    Scenes often have a setup, development, and resolution, though they may be pretty minimal. Especially the shorter scenes. I may put several short scenes into a chapter. Or divide a very long scene over several chapters. When I do that I usually end a chapter with a bend or curve in the scene, as when a secondary character enters or leaves it, or the action changes intensity.
    _____________________________
    I'm now on my eighth book, with three completed and online available as both ebooks and "pbooks" via the CreateSpace print-on-demand service, three others completed but in different rewrite stages, and my very first forever on the shelf. I'm finding both my quantity and quality are increasing with every book.

    This one is going very fast because I've learned how to combine scenes with scene summaries so that I have an intuitive grasp of the whole complete work without needing a detailed outline. Once the book is done I then go back and expand scene summaries if they warrant expansion. And often to trim scenes in which I put too much detail. (Too much for the reader. The detail was useful to me to make sure I got the events right, but much of it can be discarded once I have the overall scene well visualized.)

  6. #6
    LaerCarroll.com
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    I especially want to emphasize Kat's first paragraph. Scenes and scene summaries, chapters, and all the other tools of the writer (dialogue, plot, character reveals, etc.) are tools to help you get a story done.

    Use them however suits the story you want to tell, or your mind and heart dictate. Over time you'll likely experiment with different ways to use them, and become skilled at switching between ways as needed.

  7. #7
    Book of the Black Earth
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    I write in scenes, some of which become entire chapters by themselves, but I don't really know my chapter breaks until I'm revising and can see the "big picture."

    My advice is don't get bent out of shape about them (chapter breaks). Work from instinct on the first draft and examine your breaks afterward in the revision stage.

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