What’s the best way to write each individual chapter of your novel? Or … is that the wrong question?
Dusty posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I planned out every chapter of my novel but I can’t seem to make the magic happen.
I can’t seem to write the individual chapters.
What’s the best way to write chapters?
Randy sez: Planning is good, if you’re the kind of writer who needs planning. I would guess that half of all writers make a plan before they write, either by creating a synopsis or by using the Snowflake method or something similar. The other half just write.
I’m going to rephrase Dusty’s question, because the fundamental unit of fiction is NOT the chapter, it’s the scene. Chapters are not related to story structure. A chapter typically contains one or more scenes.
The scene is the important thing in writing fiction. Each scene needs to be its own story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When your reader finishes each scene, she should feel a sense of completion.
Dusty, it’s a little unclear what’s holding you back. I can think of two possible reasons, each with its own solution:
- It’s possible that you don’t understand scene structure. If that’s the case, then the easy fix is to learn what makes a scene work. Once you know the three essential elements each scene MUST have, it’s not hard to plan those out and then write the scene. Let me refer you to my article Writing the Perfect Scene, which explains in detail how to write a scene.
- It’s also possible that you’re overthinking things. Some people get so knotted up with anxiety that their first draft won’t be exactly right, they’re afraid to type a single word. If that’s the case for you, Dusty, then the easy fix is to take off your Editor’s hat and put on your Creator’s hat. When you wear the Creator’s hat, you get to be sloppy. Just type. Don’t edit. Slam out the words. You can always fix it later. In fact, you will fix it later when you take off the Creator’s hat and put on the Editor’s hat. It’s a lethal mistake to wear both hats at the same time. This is like driving your car pressing both the gas and the brake. Don’t do it!
Of course, there may be some other reason you’re having problems getting your scenes written, Dusty. I don’t have enough information, so I’ve given you a couple of guesses based on my experience in talking to thousands of writers over the years.
What do you think, Loyal Blog Readers? Is there something I may have missed? What might be holding Dusty back? What is a possible solution? Leave a comment here and we’ll see that our combined wisdom is better than just mine alone.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Bruce H. Johnson says
Chapters are pretty much there only to show a stopping point where the reader can pick up later.
One trick is to tweak scenes, etc., so enough fits in a chapter of about 3,000 words which is around 10 pages. In a pbook, that’s 5 leaves.
The reader reaches the end of a chapter and (if he’s into the story) can flip forward and find the next chapter is “only” 5 pages, so he says, “Just another chapter.”
Of course, when he gets to the end of the next chapter…
I’ve had a couple readers curse me mildly because they stayed up all night reading.
Use them to your advantage.
R. J. Kessler says
The fear of failure (which can be repackaged in the form of perfectionism) is 99% of my “writer’s block,” and it’s a tough problem to overcome. Taking off the Editor’s hat is–to be cliche–easier said than done.
What helps me the most is to set aside a 30-minute timer (or 20, or 10…) and just try to pump out as much as I can. No Backspace Allowed. No Touching Mouse Allowed. Just type it out. Yes, it will be ugly, but it will be fixed up later.
I have a piece of paper taped onto my monitor and it reads, “It can always be fixed later.” Whenever I let that sink in, I can easily let go of the Editor’s hat while Creating.
I have a major problem with editing while writing also. I think this stems from the fact that I do a lot of online role-playing (Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Vampire: The masquerade) And in this you write for your character & other players respond to your few paragraphs etc… with their characters. So I’m used to writing, then revising, then revising again so it’s perfect.
Last-night I discovered an app for tablets and computers called “Write or Die” which is amazing. It implements “punishments” (in your choice of 3 levels) if you stop writing. You choose how many words you wish to write in whatever amount of time you need and if you stop writing for more than a few seconds you’ll get “punished”. You can also choose to disable the save option until you reach the goal you’ve set for yourself, as well as choose to disable backspace. So it “forces” you to keep your brain going and your fingers working.
Last-night I wrote 1,109 words in around 40mns. Yes it was sloppy, but it’s given me an idea and a loose plot for a story.
Richard Mabry says
I agree with you that the unit to write is a scene. These can be cobbled together into chapters later.
RJ refers to writing, then fixing it later. Jim Bell preaches, “Get it down now, then get it right later.” Another thing that may be holding Dusty back is the desire to make his work perfect in the first draft.
I haven’t read your post on writing scenes for a while, but I’m betting you mention motivation-reaction units (explained in Dwight Swain’s book, Secrets of the Selling Writer), which are the things that drive a scene. When you told me about them, that helped a lot.
Go ahead, Dusty. Do some free-form, flight-of-ideas writing. Then build on that.
Randy, thanks for sharing.
I get bogged down in the “How do I know when my chapter is done?” and “Did I leave enough of a hook in the end of the chapter to hook readers to keep reading?”
What I’ve decided to do is, just like you said, just write. I’ve just written scene numbers and not chapters. I will go back when I’m done and assign chapter numbers according to how they fit and hook the reader.
I love the books that slice a scene in half and end the chapter before the outcome of the scene is presented. That keeps me reading every time.
Randy, your scene structure really helps keep it simple for me, so I’m not overwhelmed. Thx!
Randy’s right when he sez the most fundamental “unit” of writing is the scene. Some writers, like James Patterson, have only one scene per chapter, but that’s a choice, not a principle, it’s always your call how many scenes combine to become a chapter.
I believe scenes should be “mission-driven.” Like the story itself, it doesn’t work as well if the writer begins a scene without clarity as to why it’s there and what expositional contribution it needs to make to the story. That can result in a scene that becomes a “side trip,” which isn’t a good thing. Once the scene is “found” (the mission made clear, either through planning or drafting), then it should be revised and tightened down so that this singular mission becomes the scene’s purpose. If you do a beat sheet (as part of the planning process), it often ends up as a series of 60 (or however many scenes) mission statements. Like: “ship hits the iceberg” — that’s an entire scene, and that’s ALL the scene does.
One tip is to enter the scene at the last possible momment, without spending too much time and narrative on unnecessary setup. Do position it, but get to it. The scene must also demonstrate character, but the best scenes don’t hold that as their primary and singular mission, a scene should forward the plot, as well. A great scene also ends well (often saving the “moment” of revelation or twist to the last paragraph or sentence), and thrusts the reader into the next scene throught the deepening of the story that it creates. Hope this helps.
thanks, randy! you’re the single bestteacher I’ve ever had and I’ve never even met you!
and that’s exactly what I needed, to focus on scenes.
Thom Linehan says
Although everyone that wants to write thinks they have a story inside, sometimes they really don’t? But if you do and you have a sampling of what your chapters are going to be (they won’t stay that way in the end), then just sit down and write freehand. Just put it out onto paper and get something out. Don’t worry or get bogged down in the details just write. I have found that those that are too detail in their work get bogged down with what it’s going to look in the end. Some will stay, a lot will go so sit down and DO IT.
Chris Beane says
He might be a panster (sotp) and not a planner, but I doubt it because he is taking the time to plan and most writers I know try to start out just putting everything down.
Chris Beane says
I am also new to writing and I am actually pretty good but I guess that’s part of being a expert reader of everything but sometimes I do not have the skill to pull off a scene at the time. Dusty sounds like his goal is just out of reach. What I do is I write it down on a sticky note and put it by my bed. I then put my papers under my bed (this way if I wake up in a moment of inspiration then it is right there). I continue writing my book as if I had just pulled the scene of well and I come back to it when I have more skill.
thanks for clearing things out between chapters and scenes. I focused more on making chapters instead of scenes.
This really helps.
Please review the opening paragraph for the novel i had just started and suggest improvements.
Why do warriors have to suffer through their pain silently?
Is it unbecoming of a warrior to cry even when one is in extreme pain?
Mara did not know what will happen to him once he gets inside the cave. He was sitting on the mud at the right side of the cave waiting for his turn. There was no moon and the winter night was pitch-black. The fluttering flame of torch which was behind his back will soon be out. The swaying of trees, the rustling of leaves and the howling of wind were trying to subdue the all-encompassing silence. One of the “brothers of secret oath” Kuttuvan who had just come out of the cave was sitting next to him.
[Describe Kuttuvan’s physical features] Even in dim light Mara noticed that Kuttuvan was shivering. His clothes were wet. He was wearing wrap around cloth above his loincloth. His upper body was covered in a cloak. He was also wearing turban. He was gasping heavily. Also He was blowing into his wounded palm to relieve the pain. The nauseating smell of burnt flesh meant that the wound was deep. His hands were shivering and his legs were shaking. His mother was sobbing and rubbing his back. Mara and other “brothers of sacred oath” wear clothes similar to kuttuvan. Generally they carried bow, short sword and catapult, as weapons. Today they were stripped of them.
James Warren says
Since each scene has a goal, conflict, and setback, a new chapter begins when that goal is attained (in most cases.) However, sequel is a follow up of scene. Of course there are three elements to a sequel: reaction (to the setback), dilemma, and decision. By repeating the scene/sequel sequences, you, as a rule and not necessarily, get to end of a protagonists goal. Then chapter two. One chapter may be one scene/sequel or many sequences of same. Randy teaches all this on his site. I’ve learned a ton here. Thanks Randy!