How to figure out when a chapter isn’t working

I know this should seem easy to figure out, but we writers get so wrapped up in our stories that we lose our objectivity. And I see that in a lot of manuscripts. Since we’re all about success and happy happy joy joy writing, I thought I’d share the elements I look for when I’m analyzing chapters.

What did I learn?

I look for chapters that tell me something. If I’m not discovering new facets of the story, then I’m sitting in a pile of goo. I have a no-goo policy in the office.

So let’s say your story is about a brand new publisher whose lineup consists of five saucy ladies in their seventies, who write some of the best smut around, and a John Grisham-type author who joins them to break his writer’s block. The conflict is how the greenhorn publisher plans to keep their names anonymous. The chapters, therefore, should be a progression of the plot with the appropriate window dressing to make it a page-turner.

I’m going to be naturally interested in learning about these characters and how they fit into the plot and make it go vroom-vroom. And I’m also going to be very interested in the characters themselves.

What was the point?

But just because I’m learning something in a chapter, that doesn’t mean there’s a point to it. The usual problem I see is that authors do a bang-up job with their first three chapters – intro the characters, intro the plot, intro the conflict. After that, they tend to get a bit lost, as if they shot their wad and haven’t any idea how to fill up the middle parts of their book.

So they turn to the oft-reviled Backstory. Don’t get me wrong, I love Backstory, provided it’s used properly. In the hands of a less-experienced author, Backstory is deadly, and often leaves me scratching my head, asking, “What was the point?”

So using our story example, let’s say a chapter covers our John Grisham-type author character’s sudden writer’s block and how he’s missed his deadline for turning in his manuscript. He wonders if he’s simply run dry and should return to the courtroom and give up writing after years of NY Times bestsellers. That chapter has a point to it.

But if that chapter is, instead, filled with one of his past courtroom cases, then it has no point – no reason for being there, even if it is interesting. Take a look at every one of your chapters and ask yourself if there’s a point, a raison d’être .

Was there tension/conflict?

I’m not necessarily a one for creating tension on every page because it’s not appropriate for all stories. No one should write-by-the-numbers because it’ll come out dull, dull, dull. However, I do love chapters that have some sort of cliff hang-y ending. I like it because it compels me to turn the page and keep on reading.

What do I mean by that? Using our writer-blocked John Grisham character, a chapter could end with a journalist who reviews books and is fighting for his job at his newspaper. He needs a story to save his job. He’s been following our character’s career and begins to put some pieces together. Suddenly that new smut book that everyone has been tallking about is a lot more interesting and wonders about the author’s true identity. That is a tidbit that makes me want to turn the page to find out whazzup with the journalist and how that will impact the new publisher, the John Grisham character, and the saucy seasoned citizens.

And face it, conflict and tension is fun to read, so you need to keep that pace up with some consistency so your readers don’t have a chance to let their minds wander. You should have some in at least every chapter.

The Outline

In spite of all that, some chapters still just don’t work. It’s that forest through the trees thing, so those chapters still don’t segue well, or remain poorly written. In those cases, I always recommend doing a chapter outline, making sure that you utilize the elements I mentioned here. It’s a reality check – to make sure you’re on course, and stay there.

Because, hey, we want your chapters to work, goshdarnit.

Be honest…are you happy with your dialog? Don’t afraid to tell – this is a safe zone. Where do you think you need work or revision?


And while we’re being all happy happy, don’t forget to send in your ideas for the beagle’s Name the Company – Win a Purse

6 Responses to How to figure out when a chapter isn’t working

  1. Really useful post – thinking about a novel in terms of good and bad chapters should make it much easier to revise.

    I agree with your point about “cliff hang-y endings” … I guess you want a chapter ending that makes a reader think, ‘Uh oh, what’s going to happen now?’

  2. NinjaFingers says:

    And if you have a habit of producing 200k monstrosities (not my problem, but boy do I know a lot of people with it)…

  3. What a great post. I love this line in particular: “But just because I’m learning something in a chapter, that doesn’t mean there’s a point to it.” I am writing this wild draft, unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and plotting it out in advance (another new thing). So that’s a great reminder–just because there’s something interesting in a chapter doesn’t mean it’s automatically moving the story forward.

  4. Louise Curtis says:

    Ooh! I read the question, “Where do you think you need work or revision?” then turned to the chapter outline I have on the giant pinboard beside me, and. . . nothing. Nothing immediately came to mind.

    Which means my structural edit is now done! Yay!

    Now to make the word bits more gooder.

    Louise Curtis

  5. Laura W. says:

    “Just because I’m learning something in a chapter doesn’t mean there’s a point to it.” Good advice. I once cut most of a chapter–a conversation between friends–because it was just lead-up to what was about to happen next. It was character/relationship-building lead-up, but it seemed like it was just plunked down in the middle of the section. Painful as it was, as soon as I erased it, it improved not only the flow/progression of the chapter but also fit better with the chapter before it.

    I’ve never outlined individual chapters before, but I might try it. 🙂

  6. Some people are in favour of charting scenes/chapters with a spreadsheet. Some software e.g. Scrivener can make it a bit easier (though when I use Scrivener I tend to work with smaller chunks than whole chapters).

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