Authors are nothing if not brilliantly clever, and nowhere is this more evident than when I ask for the requisite first three chapters. Oh, those first three are sooo loverly, and I can almost hear Audrey Hepburn singing. The writing is tight, the characters fully developed. It’s smooth and keeps me eagerly turning the pages. By the time I’m done and still vainly clicking the Turn Page button on my Kindle, I know that I must have the full manuscript or the world will stop turning and life as we know it will end .
Send NOW! I type eagerly to the author. I pace, I throw spit wads at the beagle, my Kindle sits plugged into my computer, ready, quivering, and waiting to upload the full manuscript.
The day arrives…the author attaches the full to their email. I’m giddy as I do the funky chicken dance around the office. I eagerly go to the beginning of chapter 4. My heart sinks a little. I keep reading. It sinks even further, and further still, until I’m at that fateful moment when I realize the story fell apart. How I wish this was a rare thing. But it’s not.
Authors spend an inordinate amount of time on the first three chaps because it’s where the characters are introduced and developed and story is set up. It’s natural for those to rock the house.
However, what explodes also implodes, and that’s what I normally see when I hit chapters 4 and beyond. The story implodes because all the elements that held the first three chapters together – character intro and story set up – have been dealt with. Ch. 4 etc, pertains to telling that story. Less attention appears to be paid here, and I’ve gotten so that I wait to get excited about anything until after I’ve reached the middle of a full manuscript. I can almost feel the author floundering as to where to go next, which path to take. It’s like they poured all their focus into the first chapters – because we classically ask for the first three chaps – and are left without enough wind in their sails to get out of the harbor.
Read my lips: it’s vital to concentrate just as much on the remaining chapters as you did with the first three. We don’t buy a book, read to chapter 3 and stick it on our bookshelf. We read the whole enchilada. You must have focus and direction on every page and in every chapter.
Chapter 4 and beyond tends to ease back and fall into fluff and backstory, and I think it’s because authors feel that they’ve gotten the preliminary stuff out of the way, so it’s time to relax a bit. Problem is, authors can never let up. It’s like taking off in a jet. The engines are at peak thrust and we’re roaring down a runway with our hair on fire. Yah! we’re screaming as we feel the force of gravity smack us to the back of our seat. We claw our way into the sky at max thrust. That is the equivilent of the first three chapters. Once we’ve reached altitude, we can feel and hear the engines throttle back as the plane evens out. This, invariably, is chapter 4. Hello, fluff. Hello, backstory.
Bits of fluff is fine. Bits of backstory is ok. But the author needs to keep his eye on the altimeter and engine speed because unlike a real plane, your literary plane needs to continue going upward and onward. Those engines can’t wind down, and this is what backstory does. I see it so often that it almost feels formulaic. I call it the Chapter 4 Burnout.
Chapter 4 Burnout leaves the author wondering which way to go. The tough stuff is taken care of, so which flight pattern do I want to file? Backstory tends to be what the flight attendant is serving. Authors feel the need to delve into what makes their MC tick, and this can involve experiences that have zip to do with the story. Authors need to maintain maximum speed to keep readers turning the pages, and backstory is a sure way to auger into the ground.
That’s why many editors suggest that there must be tension on every page. I don’t necessarily proscribe to that, but I understand what they mean. Tension and conflict are what keep readers engaged in a book. It doesn’t have to be major tension or conflict. It can be as innocuous as having a really crappy day and discovering the beagle stole your last drop of tequila. It has nothing to do with the plot, but it goes to keeping the reader engaged in your character and your story.
Avoiding Chapter 4 Burnout takes organization. Hah, I say this – what a joke. Personally, I don’t use an outline, nor do I write in order. I’m about as whacked out as they get when it comes to writing my books. I tend to concentrate on a chapter where I’m feeling the most passion at that moment. Somehow it works for me. But the one thing I do on a consistent basis is ask myself why any particular chapter exists. It has to serve the purpose of furthering the plot amd keeping my literary plane in the air. If it doesn’t – no matter how brilliantly it was written – it gets the axe. All chapters have to remain as tight as the first three. Avoid Chapter 4 Burnout; keep your plane in one direction; forward and at max speed.