|The author, Dane F. Baylis|
IT'S ABOUT GETTING YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW
ANYBODY SEE WHERE I PUT THE DUCK TAPE?
I'm the first to admit that it can take me quite some time to figure some things out. Take for instance the physical construction of fiction. That's something I spent a lot of time trying to get right (mostly because I'm from the crash and bash school of literature), and even when I finally did, well, there weren't a lot of definitive works out there that said, "That's it!"
One of those things nobody spends a lot of time on is the composition of a chapter. We all know what they are, the building blocks of longer literary works intended to break the whole into bite size pieces. But what constitutes a bite?
I have one of those obsessive natures, the kind that tears things down into their component parts just to see what makes them work - kind of like a pit bull with a throw pillow. It was while I was dissecting some longer works that it occurred to me that chapters are really short stories. They can have all or most of the same parts as a short story: Title, beginning, middle, end, setting, characters, point of view, and theme. They introduce or amplify the conflict in the longer work. They illustrate the setting and characters, they define the major and minor dramatic questions, they contain plot and sub-plot and, above all else, they create the type of dynamic tension that impels you through a story with enthusiasm.
Truly effective chapter construction is like reading a serial collection of short stories. Each one picks up where the last left off and ends with you wanting more. This was a highly popular style of writing in the hay day of the major magazines, before television and the Internet began to replace them. Television had some of these same qualities until the producers began to doubt the attention span of their audience and the Internet has tried to reinvent some of it with the proliferation of blogs.
But think about it. What was the reason you couldn't put a particular book down? I'll bet that, as each chapter ended, there was a feeling that you had been left hanging. The author had taken you into a situation and, even if the major conflict in that chapter had been resolved, you were left waiting for some other occurrence that you knew was around the corner. It might have been something as simple as the revelation of some information needed by the main character to continue on, or the introduction of a character you knew was going to be the monkey in the wrench works.
Whatever it was, it was done artfully and with attention to how the pieces fit together. What is one of the prime killers of a reader's enthusiasm? The chapter or subtext that doesn't really seem to contribute to moving the story along. The minor character without real purpose, the subplot that could have been an aside, but should never have been an entire chapter. Just as each word should be weighed to produce the most effective sentence, each sentence should be considered for its contribution to a paragraph, and every paragraph should be seen as igniting the motion and tension of the individual chapters. Thus, every chapter should be a vital story within the overall construction of the super structure of your novel.
It is this type of construction that is the hallmark of really good mysteries or thrillers. But it is also the secret to improving any form, whether romance, adventure, science fiction, young adult, or whatever else you write. If you learn to treat your chapter as a serial short story, you will develop a powerful avenue for improving your writing.
In the meantime...live, love, write.
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Dane F. Baylis