Articles, Writing

What’s in a Chapter?

I’ve been undergoing a bit of an epiphany recently as I plan out some new works and it’s gotten me thinking lately about a fundamental element of story structure and how I approach it (along with how others seem to approach it): the chapter.

Chapters are essential units of storytelling. Do not omit them or try to subvert the reader’s expectations. Chapters create structure which is valuable to both you and your reader.

We all seem to think we know what a chapter is. It’s a unit of story. We all seem to think we know where a chapter starts and ends. But how do we perhaps better define a chapter?

Here’s three main ideas that come to mind initially when thinking about what a chapter is:

  • Length: a chapter is, roughly speaking, no more than 3,500-4,000 words in length. Some may, because of the points below, be considerably shorter. But any longer (and this is from experience), you will start to fatigue the reader whose attention may start to wander from what is happening to when the chapter finishes so they can have a break (for many readers, like myself, are loathe to put a book down mid-chapter). Chapters in themselves are great units of story to consume: I’ll read three chapters before bed..  or I can fit in a couple of chapters before my sister calls.
  • Place and time: This is an approach I take myself: a chapter takes place in one place, at one particular time. It might be, say, four AM at Rachel’s house, and the chapter contains what happens then. If we then wish to switch to three-thirty PM at Roger’s corner shop, that abrupt change of time and place is an almost natural break point for a new chapter.
  • Point of view: One chapter may be from the perspective of the police offer chasing down a wanted criminal. The next, we may switch to the point of view of the criminal who is actually just trying to save his ill daughter. A great combination of both place and time and point of view is the Expanse series of science-fiction novels, whose approach from point of view to dedicate each chapter to the point of view of one of several characters works extremely effectively. I also feel that dedicating each chapter to a point of view is narratively less taxing on both the reader and author as both can be sure through whose eyes the events in a particular chapter take place.

Chapter breaks can be crucial in determining your initial act breaks. A chapter should contain a handful of “events”: aka things that happen. You start with a thing that leads to a character making a change that results in another thing they must then contend or deal with.

But that’s just the fundamentals. What else can a chapter be?

  • A chapter is a logical series of scenes that take place in one place and time through the perspective of a particular character: A chapter can indeed be one scene. Janes gets up and has breakfast. But you could have a series of scenes in which the stakes are upped. Jane gets up, not feeling well. She has a shower. Steve is waiting for breakfast. She emerges and discovers she is pregnant. How will she tell Steve?
  • A chapter deals with one particular “moment” or change to our characters or plot: As with length above, chapters where lots change can fatigue and confuse the reader if you keep throwing events at them. Chapter breaks are free, and you can make chapters short to adhere to this length (see James Patterson’s books which have lots of pacy, short chapters).
  • The plot needs to move in a meaningful way: A chapter of backstory is fine as long as this makes sense to the “now” our characters. A chapter describing the world you’re trying to build, without context and importantly without anything happening will bore the reader. A chapter should set up an event, or lead from one event to the next.                                                                              
  • First and last lines are important: Your first line should be a hook that draws the reader in. You can do a great deal of work in setting up the situation of the chapter with an opening line or paragraph. The reader needs to be enticed to keep reading. Likewise, the end of the chapter should be a “cliffhanger” that makes the reader really want to continue reading. A chapter break is a good point for a reader to end their session, but what you really want is that just one more chapter… pull.

In my own approach, I treat chapters as we would scenes in a film: a logical series of events. I’ve read works from other authors where the chapters are 8,000 words long: my advice to them would be to break these huge, monolithic chapters into several (you can even put a different point of view chapter between them – think in movies how we mostly follow the goodies but break to see the baddies too) – breaking a big scene across three chapters you can end up being able to write more (three 3,500-word chapters is 10,500 words, which is considerably more than one 8,000 word chapter).

In my own work, I absolutely subscribe to the Expanse-style of dedicating one overall point of view per chapter, though I have made exceptions (especially close to a finale of a story). And indeed, some mid-chapter or inter-chapter interludes are fun to add in various context that may not necessarily fit into the formal chapter structure but are indeed chapters by another name.

Generally, my chapters take the following form:

  • A hook at the start to both reorient the reader from the previous chapter and entice them to read on.
  • Confined to one time and place, and the events of which are told through one character’s point of view.
  • A cliffhanger moment at the end to propel the reader to the next chapter.

Once you decide on how you will structure your chapters as part of your overall outline or plan then the events in which will fit in easily, but don’t be wedded to your initial outline (I recall The Thaw started as a very traditional three-act structure: each act was three groups of three chapters et cetera).

This may all come as no surprise to anyone though it’s a subject worth thinking about as laying the groundwork with a good understanding of the fundamentals will aid storytelling in a profound way before you add layers atop the foundations. What are your thoughts on how you lay out or plan chapters?

If you have not yet subscribed to my exclusive monthly newsletter and wish to, please do so here! Thank you!

Articles, Writing

Painting By Numbers? – Exploring the Advantages of Plotting and “Pantsing”

There’s an oft-described dichotomy between writers between “plotters” – those who assiduously and diligently plan their stories, sometimes with great precision, and “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants in seeing how the flow comes, and writing whatever comes to them in the glory of the moment. Dan Hook summarised these approaches well in his recent video, which inspired me to examine perhaps a little more closely how I’d define myself as a writer.

In the period of consideration that precipitated this post, I realised it was a journey.

But first, it’s important to examine both approaches. I think both embody a very different school of thought for writing, especially prose.

Plotters – sometimes referred to as planners or architects – aim to have the main beats of their stories down in some form before commencing the start of writing. And indeed there’s a variety of degrees to which this can be done – some writers choose to plan every moment of their stories, forming a skeleton of a plot onto which they hang the meat of the prose. Some simply sketch out a vague idea of what they want to happen in each chapter, or act, or part, and then let that act as a guide to their writing.

There’s a host of techniques – Save the Cat is a commonly referred to method in scriptwriting and increasingly, prose; indeed it’s a book I’m to read very soon – but the essence, I’ve inferred, from plotting a story, or using an outline to map out where that story needs to go, is that it can make it easy to check if the story has the elements of story – an inciting incident, conflict, the character journey, to name a few – and they’re in the correct narrative places relative to the work.

“Pantsers” – somewhat less crudely termed discovery writers – usually open with a blank page and start typing whatever the flow brings them. It’s a complete dichotomy to the planned, almost technical approach of planning: you go where the story takes you, and you discover that story – world, characters and plot – with your characters. Discovery writing can be extremely pure and cathartic as the words simply flow.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

However I think it’s reductive to simply put these approaches at odds to each other –  in very broad strokes, planning is technical; pantsing is artistic. These things do not seem to gel together at all! But crucially, despite some perceptions, there is no need for a writer to occupy one camp or the other.

These terms, despite a casual glance suggesting otherwise, are not mutually exclusive. I think Dan makes an excellent point in his video that an effective strategy is to harness the advantages of both approaches where the situation warrants. For example, in his upcoming novel Displaced, the first in a series, the idea came from a university assignment and grew organically from then, and on completing the first, rough, draft, came the plan to support that.

This is a good approach. Being a discovery writer doesn’t always mean going in blind. You can easily approach a work with a vague idea, flesh it out and then work a plan around it as it develops. In my own journey, I can definitely see the discovery writer I once was. In my NaNoWriMo 2010 novel The Last of the Steamers, I had no plan. I didn’t even break it up into chapters. I simply had an idea – perhaps a few extremely vague notes – and went with it. The resultant novel will likely never see the light of day for reasons I mentioned in my earlier post.

I think a blended approach is best. Here’s the start of the outline I used for the first act of my WIP post-apoc novel The Thaw:

(Be warned, some spoilers for this follow, if that’s important to you!)

This outline took a long time to devise. I didn’t use any specific schema besides the classic “three-act structure) for this; I even worked that down to a fairly granular level, breaking each act into three parts, of three subsequent chapters. indeed, I found this was just the right amount of depth to allow me to take a blended approach.

With this outline I strove to get the key, must-happen events of the story (the “bones”) codified. Then I simply wrote. My personal view is that having this level of detail in terms of key plot events allows for writing of the actual chapters to harness the power of discovery writing. Having that vague plot already there allows for the writing itself to take twists and turns, as long as it accomplishes those things.

This plan also strove to include a technique I admire from the Expanse books by James S. A. Corey, and indeed from A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin – give each chapter a specific point-of-view. Visualising this on my plan through the use of coloured tags helped me distribute the “story” accordingly, and helped to make sure the point-of-view doesn’t linger in the hands of one character excessively.

This plan, however, doesn’t accurately represent the work as it’s gone through edits by me, and that’s fine. It worked well for the initial draft which it was designed for – the project’s evolution outside of that is fairly incidental to this document. It represents my overarching ideas for the story and I feel that working to this plan resulted in an excellent piece, which continues to evolve and tinker but the blueprint of this plan sits at the very heart of the 104,000 word draft.

Is this plan perfect, though? Absolutely not – I feel I could structure this far more efficiently now, and indeed on future novel projects I will iterate and improve this basic template.

But returning to perhaps the main point – this plan embodies roughly about the amount of detail I feel comfortable in having in my plans. Sure, there’s no reference to story beats or story components, but they’re in there in less obvious terms. The story does still contain all those elements – inciting incidents, character journeys, internal struggles, barriers to success – but I’d admit that this plan is v1.0 for me and I’ll always be happy to adapt, tweak and learn.

That said, this has led me to reflect on the initial first draft of The Thaw quite fondly as I found that blended approach seemed to work quite well. I’d admit to being a technical writer – my prose reflects, I feel, my approach: it’s precise, methodical but doesn’t lack that whisper of artistic flair. I don’t get preoccupied in writing flowery, gushing prose that could be argued as easily resultant from discovery writing; and if I did, it largely gets edited out!

I feel an over-planned story whose outline is totally inflexible becomes simply a painting-by-numbers exercise that simply isn’t fun to write. And if writing isn’t fun, why do we do it? Fiction that’s enjoyable to read needs to be enjoyable to write, and as a writer I consider myself less and artist but more a craftsman, taking that blended approach of precision and planning with a good dose of creating art.

By creating a loose structure onto which to hang your writing you give yourself guidelines that can be loose and flexible enough to allow for the natural journey and organic twists that can’t be foreseen and planned in advance to emerge during the actual writing. A plan should be a roadmap, not a straightjacket.

But wait, there’s more!

It might be easy to assume that for this entire post I’m referring to fiction writing. However, I think these tips and insights work for both fiction and non-fiction work, though fiction being the lens through which I’m making these observations. With non-fiction many of the same rules apply – plan out the arguments or points you want to make, structure out the research or key points to reference and the actual writing, as long as it hits those beats or makes those points can flow pretty much freeform.

To conclude, I think putting oneself in one camp or the other is facile and overly reductive, but finding a balance of both approaches, and knowing when each works best, and how one can complement the other, really reaches the sweet sauce between writing for the sheer fun of it and coming up with a rewarding, cohesive and engaging piece – whatever you’re writing!

Articles, Writing

Writing Thoughts: Writing Secrecy and Improving Confidence

When I first started to take my writing ‘seriously’ in 2010 I’d never tell a soul what I was working on. I’d keep it to myself until it was done (the project I started then, my first-ever Nanowrimo novel The Last of the Steamers, sits unfinished awaiting a substantial rewrite even now) – even telling people that I was simply working on a ‘secret project’.

In retrospect I came across to the unaware as aloof and utterly irritating, and I’m a bit embarrassed vicariously for past me. Why was that? I suppose, back then, I simply lacked confidence to discuss my project – either through a lack of confidence in my abilities or a lack of confidence in my prospective story – a story that I know probably does have legs but needs major development. I didn’t want to discuss it in its embryonic stages out of a perception of embarrassment.

Anyway, I am pleased to say that these days I am the opposite – and I think this is an important development in my writing psyche. These days I am always chomping at the bit to talk about plot and ideas with fellow writers – a great deal of the best ideas are borne out of these discussions. I’ve had some of my best a-ha! plot moments from having chats about ideas with other writing friends and it’s genuinely, in some cases, reshaped how a prospective plotline goes.

For instance, I’m throwing around an idea I had in 2018 for a climate-apocalypse adventure called Heatwave. The premise would be that due to reasons unknown for now, the Earth’s climate has heated up, and this has rendered much of Southern England uninhabitable. Instead of writing a complex political-based thriller (Scotland not being happy at being essentially annexed by England for its water and living space is the baseline for that strand of the idea) I had a chat with a friend about my thoughts on this and eventually instead of an ‘escape to the North’ plot, the story would be a journey into the uninhabitable zone for the protagonist in search of some unknown, taboo truth.

In effect, the entire thread I’d planned for the narrative got flipped and I’m extremely grateful for that friend for taking the time to chat about it as it would’ve been a lot of work to do this later down the line when I had thousands of words down already.

Even writing the above paragraphs show how my mindset has changed in that time. For Steamers you’d have been lucky to get ‘I’m writing a book…’ out of me. Early writer me wouldn’t have even dreamed of divulging plot details or ideas like that – maybe out of some fear of them being ‘stolen’? I considered plot ideas like the Crown Jewels, the most valuable parts of my writer’s armoury that I had, so they had to be kept totally secret and secure. Or, worse than the possibility of idea theft, having one’s ideas rebuked as rubbish or juvenile or unworthy. Those wounds would’ve cut deep.

But largely I’ve found the writing community, and the writers I know, are not amoral jackals waiting to pounce like vultures on the scrawniest morsel of plot-related meat; they’re more supportive and helpful-minded. I’m fortunate that I have a decent – and slowly expanding – network of writers to throw plot ideas off of, and I’m always more than happy to provide the service in return.

Plus, I feel I’ve grown in confidence of my ideas because I have faith in their virtue and value. I know that they are good ideas, but more importantly, I can defend them with the knowledge of why they’re good ideas. That’s not to say a debate or discussion isn’t welcome – indeed it’s often useful to honing or refining those ideas.

Reflecting on this, some of my most valued and treasured times studying Creative Writing at University came from my writing workshops where a group of like-minded writers would workshop a piece and offer constructive feedback, criticism or thoughts. Those discussions would often result in excellent plot additions or alterations that simply the writer may be oblivious to, or otherwise would never arrive at. Sometimes it takes that external input to accomplish that lightbulb moment. I think that being able to workshop a piece – especially an unfinished piece – is the most valuable opportunity and would highly recommend doing so for fiction pieces.

I also feel that my writing confidence has grown because I’m happy with my choices of genre. Perhaps, in those early days, I was embarrassed by my idea for The Last of the Steamers because it’s a bit of a pulpy adventure novel, it doesn’t break the mould of what those kinds of stories they are. But now I find myself comfortable being a writer of genre fiction as it’s what I truly enjoy, though my thoughts on genre vs literary fiction are for another time.

The point regarding genre confidence also means that, while I am at home in my current genre – I’m also confident to know where I’d perhaps like to break the myths. I was set a challenge a good while ago by a university friend to try my hand at a romance story. This would be very much a new thing for me as it’s both a genre I’m deeply unfamiliar with for a variety of reasons, but also because to my knowledge there’s not a lot of male romance writers. Why? A good story is a good story regardless of those labels and if it’s derived from a burning desire to tell that story then I say go for it.

Overall though the development of a writer’s confidence an important journey to go on but very rewarding as it can reap benefits. And especially let yourself be open to workshopping your pieces, even if it’s only to a couple of trusted writer friends as growing that confidence in presenting unfinished ideas is important – those workshopping your piece will never (if they’re decent and good) ‘tear it to pieces’, so open up and realise that they want the piece to do as well as you do and they’re offering their own advice on how to get there. You’re always free to accept or ignore this advice but it’s worth taking on board, especially if it’s well-reasoned, constructively-critical advice. Don’t be afraid!