Sustaining the reader’s attention over the course of a book also generally requires sub-plots. The main plot of your novel might be the fate of a young prince about to be betrothed to someone he has never met, but over the course of the story various distractions and obstacles will cross his path, each requiring their own resolution. You may also introduce less-obviously related problems or goals of various supporting characters. Getting all of those interacting in a way that both feels natural and is entertaining to the reader can be tricky
I’m not the kind of writer who starts with an outline. I often start stories without a clear idea of whether this thing that’s occurred to me is going to be a short story, a novella, or a complete book. Very rarely an idea will hit me, I’ll sit down and start typing, and some hours later I have reach the end of a short story. More often what happens is I write for several hours stopping at a point where I either have to stop to go to bed or work or something else, having only then figured out that what I’ve got is a longer story. Even then, I don’t usually stop to do an outline until I hit a serious snag. At that point, I can map out what I’ve written already, start identifying emotional arcs and so forth, and as I make all of that explicit in the outline, start seeing how these various bits might be made to come together in a satisfying conclusion.
Other people I know have an outline when they start, but even with a detailed outline at the beginning, writers get bogged down, hit snares, and so forth. Whichever type of writer you are, when you get hung up, the solution is often to go back to the basics:
- Who’s story is it?
- What do they want?
- What’s in their way
- How far are they willing to go to get what they want?
And don’t just answer those questions for your protagonist. Answer those questions for any villains in the piece and all the supporting characters. I often find the solution to what seems to be a complete dead-end on a plot is to change which subplots cross the hero’s path when.
Another important tool is simply to re-read everything I’ve written before. I had a book-length story moving along a while back, everything going according to plan until I hit this one big snag: I needed two of the characters (specifically, two of the villainous characters), to go to a particular place so they would literally cross the path of some of the other characters. Except I could think of no logical reason they would go there at that point. I really spun my wheels on that for a while. I even tried re-outlining the story from scratch to see if I’d notice something different. While re-reading everything I’d written thus far, two tiny details that I had put in the descriptions of two parts of the story leapt out at me. I had put them in simply because they seemed to fit the mood, and I was trying to give the reader a good image of the characters. But each detail implied a couple of things that I hadn’t consciously thought as important to the plot. And while I didn’t originally intend the two details to be related to each other, I realized if I went with the explanation that did relate them, it gave me a perfect opportunity to drop some new information in the laps of the two characters–information that would send them out to retrieve something, and put them where I needed them when I needed them.
I don’t think that my subconscious put those two details in for that reason originally, but when I found it, it did seem almost miraculous, like a finding a secret bridge across a seemingly impassible chasm in the plot. And once I had that connection between those details, it made several other things later in the book easier to explain.
And frequently, while I’m re-examining those character arcs, or reviewing the outline and comparing what I’ve already written to the plan, I find little gems like that buried in the scenes. A detail or a throw-away line or maybe just a coincidence that I can exploit to leapfrog the plot ahead.
Sometimes, in order to keep putting one word in front of the other, we have to go looking in the muck for something we can repurpose.
Whether you write your story in order or more free form, there is usually some form of modularity within the story. A very short story may consist of a single scene, but longer stories are usually broken up into multiple scenes, groups of which may be gathered into chapters (or acts), and so on.
These modules of narrative provide a means of packaging bits of your story into digestible chunks. How you structure them controls the rhythm of the story, providing a sense of movement through time and or space.
And they can be tricky.
Unfortunately, the way I do a lot of my own writing is intuitive, now. I’ve been writing fiction since grade school, and I started reading articles in magazines such as The Writer and Writer’s Digest also during grade school, so I’ve internalized a lot of processes to an extent that I do them without a lot of conscious thought. My honest first answer to the question, “How do you decide where a chapter ends?” is, “It ends when you get to the end.”
So let’s start with some definitions. These aren’t necessarily authoritative definitions. You’ll find a lot of writers with similar but still different definitions of these things.
A scene is a building block of the story. You can think of it as a single brick in a wall, or the next pearl on a necklace. A scene usually happens at a single location and for a short, continuous period of time. Every scene in your story should fulfill a purpose. Ideally they should serve several purposes. The sorts of purposes scenes can serve are:
- Advance the plot
- Introduce a new character, theme, or problem
- Create suspense
- Establish or develop the setting, a character, or a problem
- Provide information the reader will need later to understand the action
- Foreshadow coming events
- Create atmosphere
These aren’t the only purposes scenes can fulfill. It can be argued that some of the purposes I have listed are subsets of others. Creating atmosphere could be thought of as a specific type of establishing the setting and problems facing the characters in it. I’ve seen other lists of possible purposes for scenes include as separate items things with which, to me, are simply subsets of the ones above. For instance, a lot of people list building sympathy or antipathy for a character as a separate purpose, whereas I think of that as just one type of establishing or developing the character. But those are quibbling details.
The important thing to remember is: a scene shouldn’t be in your story if it doesn’t serve one of the purposes for furthering the story.
I like to write scenes from a particular viewpoint character. Most of my stories are written in third-person subjective. That means I look at the scene from a particular character’s perspective. I’ll tell you what that person sees, hears, and feels, but without getting into the head of any of the other characters in that scene. So that means that if I need to get into another character’s head, I need to have a separate scene for the character.
So you can think of a scene as a single incident in the chain of your story. For instance, “When the lieutenant asked the maid about the abbey,” or “When the young noble spoke to his imprisoned mother,” or “When the princess argued with her husband about a family visit.”
A chapter is harder to define. Chapters are, largely, the result of tradition, rather than having a clearly defined purpose in a story. The usual explanation is that chapters were invented when scrolls were replaced by books. A single bound book would contain stories, records, or other information that had been in a scroll. The pages which represented a single scroll would be demarked as a chapter. During the 19th century, when many novels were serialized in magazines before being gathered into a book (if at all), chapters were often the monthly or weekly installment of the story. So, one answer to why books have chapters is because people expect books to have chapters. They don’t always, of course. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, for instance, seldom have chapters. There are breaks between scenes, but no marked chapters.
If a book has chapters, one of the purposes they fill is to break the story into bite-sized chunks. They can provide breaking points where your reader knows she can set the story down and come back easily. Of course, one of the secrets of an enthralling book is chapter endings that entice the reader to keep going, so you don’t want the break to feel like a finale.
Chapters can help organize the story in ways other than “this happened, then this, then this…” If your characters aren’t all in the same place, you can use a chapter to gather all of the scenes which happen at the same (or nearly the same) time but with different characters. Or you can gather a bunch of scenes which have some thematic parallels (though if they are happening at very different times, you may have to take extra pains to communicate to the reader when each scene occurs).
I like to think of chapters as episodes in a serial story. If my book were a television show, for instance, with each season having an overarching plot, each chapter would represent a single episode of the series. So each scene is an incident, then each chapter is a collection of related incidents.
For me, a chapter needs to convey something that feels like a satisfying episode. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it tells a complete story, but when the reader reaches the end of a chapter, it should feel as if they have completely an important step in the journey, with a clear feeling that there is more journey ahead.
People often, therefore, recommend ending chapters on cliffhangers. And I agree with the sentiment, but dislike the terminology. Don’t get me wrong, I end plenty of chapters on cliffhangers. But the term cliffhanger is often interpreted to mean that one or more of your characters are in physical peril, and not everyone’s story has a lot of moments where characters finds themselves looking down the barrel of an unexpected gun. Cliffhanger can be any form of unresolved character tension. If one of your characters is being question by the police, most of the scene can be revealing the character’s personality while revealing various details about the situation, and a perfectly acceptable cliffhanger is for the interrogator to reveal a piece of damning evidence that ties the character to the scene of a crime. Even better if the character thought they were being questioned about a robbery, and the revelation is that there is also a dead body at the scene–you’ve raised the stakes to murder! Any situation that makes the reader asked, “Oh, no! How’s he/she going to deal with this?” can be your chapter ending.
You don’t have to end the chapter at each moment that evokes that curiosity, of course. Sometimes I have a bunch of cliffhangers within a single chapter. In a fantasy novel I’m working on right now, there’s a battle in which a dragon and her ally (a witch) attack a carriage carrying three monks and a runaway prince. I depict the battle in a number of scenes, each from the point of view of a different person involved in the battle. Each scene in the story ends at a moment where the viewpoint character has just tried to do something, or finds themself confronted with something unexpected. Then I move to a different character and show what’s happening from that viewpoint. You can do this with the other sorts of cliffhangers, too. If your chapter is a collection of scenes happening at nearly the same to characters who are in different locations, you might end each scene with that character making a discovery or realization that gives them pause.
I tend to be a seat of my pants writer in so far as I seldom write up a formal outline until I’m in a revision stage. But I usually have an idea when I start a new chapter which incidents I want the cover next. I also tend to make the chapters close to the same length. So sometimes if I notice the word count is getting higher than I thought in a scene, I’ll decide to move one of the scenes into the next chapter… which means I’ll have to think about how to make the scenes that share the next chapter feel as if they belong together.
I don’t always make chapters exactly the same length. In one of my current projects, for various dramatic reasons, I have one chapter that is a single sentence, and another that is only eight sentences.
This is a rather long rambly way to get back to my original answer: I end chapters when they end.
But while the sentiment represents the truth, it is not the whole truth. Not by a long shot… Read More…
For me, there is no difference between how I write a stand-alone story or a long series of stories set in a single universe. That’s because in one sense, I never see any story as a stand-alone, even if I never write any sequels, prequels, or stories otherwise set in the same universe…
I don’t have one single approach. Each story is a bit different. In the typewriter days I tended to scribble thoughts and fragments in notebooks that I carried around with me until I reached a point I was ready to start. Sometimes I still write notes by hand, but more often they get typed into my phone. I have an app called WriteRoom which connects with my dropbox, so anything I type in the phone is available as a text file to access from my iPad, my laptop, or my desktop. The same company has a product called PlainText that works on the iPad and Mac. What I like about PlainText is that it has a good integration with Scrivener, which is my main writing tool.
If I’m at the point where I think the notes and ideas are turning into a story, I’ll set up a story file. Depending on how long I think the story will be, I may start a simple file and just start writing. If I know It’s going to be a longer piece, I’ll set up a Scrivener novel file, and copy all of the notes I’ve assembled elsewhere into the Research section of the Scrivener file before I start writing.
Often those notes I’ve scribbled or typed down include conversations between characters in the story. Sometimes they are complete scenes. I don’t always know where the scene falls in the story when it first comes to me. Sometimes, by the time I’ve finished the story, those scenes aren’t part of it. Even though I had to write them down in order to figure out the story, they don’t belong in it. They may be things that happen in between scenes that are merely alluded to. Sometimes they’re things that never “happened” in the fictional world at all.
For instance, one time I had a scene pop into my head, one of those Write me down! Write me down now or I’ll go away! scenes. Two characters were debating/arguing about the moral and practical consequences of a series of events they had been involved in. I eventually figured out the story and wrote it. It the middle of the story, during one of the events the characters had argued about in that scene, one of the characters is killed. And then some of the events the two characters had been debating happened after that character was dead. This particular story wasn’t set in a fantasy world where people might have conversations after death, so that scene couldn’t happen.
Most of the time, with short stories, once I start, I write most of it in order. I’ll write a scene, and that dictates what happens next and how the characters will act. I may end up going back to insert an extra scene. Or a scene may pop into my head that I know is close to the end, and I’ll write it to get the information down, then go back to where I left off and figure out how to get to the end.
Sometimes, I realize that I started the story in the wrong place. I had this one short story I had been working on for years. It just didn’t quite work. I would read a version at my writers’ group, and even before anyone said anything, I knew it still wasn’t working. Reading a story outloud, and feeling the non-verbal ways people are reacting to it sometimes is all the critique you need. When I finally realized that I’d begun it wrong, I fought for while. I loved that opening. I had read the opening, without the rest of the story, at several readings at conventions, and the audience had loved it.
But it was the wrong start. It happened at the wrong point in the emotional arc of the tale. It only worked from the point of view of the minor character who never appeared again in the story. It was a great opening—but it was an opening for a story starring that character. I had to look at which character it was that underwent the most change, or had the revelatory moment when the conflict resolved. She needed to be the protagonist, and then it was obvious where the story began: the moment she confronted the puzzle which her revelation would be about. Which was a very different opening. The events of that opening I had clung to for so long still happen in the story, they just happened in the middle, and from a different point of view. The scene is still a good scene, but the emotion and rhythm is very different.
Novels are a lot more complicated. For one thing, to sustain a novel length story you need subplots, in addition to the main story. Those subplots need to have some relationship to the main story line, some of them even feed into it. They get resolved at different times. And making all of that work requires me, at least, to go back and add new scenes, or move scenes (or parts of a scene) to a new location in the narrative.
In a novel-length story, there is often a point where I have to jump way ahead and write part of the ending. It’s usually a point where enough of the subplots have got going that I make some intuitive leaps about how some of them tie together. I write the scene, knowing full well that by the time I get to it I’m probably going to have to rewrite it a bit. But having it there it acts like a target, giving me something to aim at as I try to move all the characters and subplots across the finish line.
Calling it a finish line is misleading, of course. Because once I’ve finally gotten them all there, then I have to go back and fix things. But that’s a topic for another day.