Chapter Content – Too Much or Not Enough?

pondering
Have you ever read a book and thought a chapter or three went on for too long? Or not long enough? Or worse, they seemed to be a confusing mish mash of information all piled on much like the old college prank of stuffing a VW bug? This aberration comes from a lack of proper organization. Sounds simple, no?

The answer? Re-organize, and you have great chapters. Okay, if it were that easy, we wouldn’t have this problem of wonky chapters, right? Here are some of the things I look for when I edit.

Chapter Intent

I look for chapters that are clear about what they’re saying. I want them to have a clear direction. It’s like the time when we first moved to Pittsburgh. We were trying to find a particular furniture store, and Zelda (what I’ve named my phone’s navigation app) took us on the wildest goose chase that I’m still shocked we didn’t end up in Ohio. Bitch. If she had just gotten rid of all the ups and downs, turns and twists, we would have gotten to the store in fifteen minutes, instead of forty-five.

It’s the same with chapters. If a chapter introduces a character, then zaps over to backstory, then teleports over to the history of the setting, I’m going to request the author’s bloodletting, because there’s no sense of direction.

A lot of us just sit down at the computer and barf out our chapters. It isn’t until subsequent drafts that we begin to refine and define. This is why an outline can be helpful at some point in the revision process. It forces you to stay on task and prevents you from wandering off the railroad tracks…or from going on and on and on and on…

A chapter should have a beginning, middle, and an end…which leads me to…

The Middle Stuff

If you’re clear on your chapter intent – example: “This chapter explains why I have Rescue Beagles in my employ, and why I won’t allow them to answer the phone anymore” – then the middle stuff needs to support that intent. If you keep it clear, then it makes it easier to know how and where to end your chapters.

Chapter Ending

There have been times when I’ve reached the end of the chapter and turned the page looking for the rest, because I didn’t realize I’d reached the end. Instead, the chapter left me hanging and had zero impact. I call that Endus Abruptus. To me, abrupt is only effective when the Rescue Beagles of Questionable Breeding breeze into my airspace to polish off my margarita. The only solution is to shout out an abrupt, “Get your own damn drink!”

Endus Abruptus shouldn’t be confused with a cliffhanger, which is equally abrupt. Oh nay nay. These offending chapter endings leave a scene unfinished. It’s like a punchline that makes no sense, and you need further explanation in order to get its meaning.

Conversely, I’ve read plenty chapters that actually ended two pages ago, and the authors seemed unaware of that fact. Instead, they rambled on and on until the ending sort of faded away – in much the same fashion as my imbibing one too many Fireballs.

There are all kinds of ways to end a chapter, but they have one thing in common; they make sense. Where and How to end a chapter is as intentional as the plot and character development.They satisfy whatever transpired in that chapter by giving enough information to keep you turning the pages. They have a Mini-Me version of rising action, climax, and falling action.

Paragraph Transitions

I’m big on transitions because I can be thick between the ears. You gotta lead me from Point A to Point B in a logical fashion. If one paragraph is about a character’s thoughts on the weather, and the next one goes into firing one of his employees, then you need a transitional sentence that leads into that next paragraph because, without it, there is nothing remotely linking those two paragraphs together.

Think of transitional sentences as couplers between railroad cars. They’re the magic that keeps the entire train together. Take out a coupler, and the train falls apart. Same goes for transitions between paragraphs of differing topics.

Example:

Being a native Southern Californian, I had no idea about the dangers of snow and freezing rain when I moved to Pittsburgh. I’m an idiot that way. Most I ever had to worry about was whether to put on short sleeves and bring a sweater, or just wear long sleeves and ditch the sweater. Weather meant looking at the surf report, not ice skating on my driveway in my best shoes. Though today, it looked like ice skating would be the main course of my work banquet, since I finally decided to fire the Rescue Beagles – their antics were taking a toll on my last shred of sanity.

“Rescue Beagles, you’re fired. You can’t type, you refuse to file, and your phone manners are dismal. I give you points on your margarita-making skills, but you can’t continue biting the pizza delivery guy and expect to collect a paycheck.”

The sentence in red is the transitional sentence. Without it, the reader would do the blink blink thing before hurling the book across the room. Avoid the book hurl.

Chapter Balance

This is where I go all feng shui and call people “Grasshopper.” Balance is a delicate internal gauge that ensures the information in each chapter has the proper weight. For example, if your chapter exposes how your main character discovers pygmy yaks have been eating all her Coach purses while she’s at work, then you need to put the proper amount of literary weight behind which element you feel is most important. Is it the discovery behind who’s eating the purses, or is it how your main character caught them?

It’s easy to throw off an entire book by giving more weight to inconsequential things, while paying less attention to the really important stuff that needs explanation. Recently, I read a manuscript where one chapter talked about meeting her long lost aunt, whom she thought was dead. It was quite pivotal. But instead of talking about that, the author chose to go into backstory, and paid scant attention to actually meeting the aunt. Grasshopper wrote that chapter completely out of balance.

So, dear Grasshopper, chapters are the building blocks of your book. If they’re filled with a clear intent, are well-balanced, have effective transitions, and come to a logical conclusion, then this makes it easier to edit (which makes me deliriously happy) into a bright package of fabulosity. Go forth and rocketh your world.

6 Responses to Chapter Content – Too Much or Not Enough?

  1. Pelotard says:

    This is why writing short stories is good practice. It’s not that it’ll teach you all the skills required for a novel, just as no amount of 100-yard dashes will prepare you for a Marathon. But you’ll learn many of the skills required to put a chapter together. (Not the cliffhanger, though. If your short story ends on a cliffhanger, you’ve misunderstood the whole thing.)

  2. John Allan says:

    Chapter 1 in Mark Giminez’s ‘Con Law’ takes place in a classroom and at some 22 pages, and is far and away too long and drawn out.

  3. Cat Lumb says:

    Reblogged this on Cat Lumb: The Struggle to be a Writer and commented:
    As I am currently editing my manuscript, namely the first couple of chapters, something about this post struck me as significant. Some great points to keep in mind!

  4. ericjbaker says:

    I’m having flashbacks to my first novel manuscript (don’t take the brown manuscript!). I though I had a cool twist in the middle, but it turned into a 25-page flashback and then required a scene that was a virtual repeat of the scene before the flashback. I think those are called “plotting problems.”

    It’s still in a box under my bed, where it is being punished. For my transgression, I realize. Well, I won’t fit under there, so what do you want me to do?

  5. Eric, admission is the first step to the healing process. Burn your manuscript, go forth and sin no more.

  6. Val says:

    Enjoyed your post, as always. Loved the bloodletting line!

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