Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Writing Tip

by Barbara D'Amato


I was reading a novel, maybe the fifth or so in a series I really like, when I began to feel manipulated. After flipping back and forth in the book, I decided the problem was the structure. The chapters alternated like this:

Main character confronted by puzzle
Secondary character in danger
MC still puzzled
SC getting farther into danger
MC finds clue which produces more puzzles
SC – worse danger
MC -- puzzled

And so forth. It’s not that going back and forth between characters is a bad technique. It keeps things moving. The problem in this book was the metronomic regularity of the switch. The story needed a third element to appear a couple of times to keep the process from being predictable.

In another mystery novel, three chapters began with a dream. The kind of thing where you read into it thinking it’s real and then the dreamer wakes up, usually all stressed. These chapters were widely spaced in the book and not, I think, intended to be stylistically important. Nor were they an important characteristic of the man who was dreaming. They seemed to be a solution the author had found to the problem of getting into a new chapter. But it was overused.

We all get into habits. Something worked before? Use it again. That’s learning. But it’s also dangerous. We need to check out our habits and to do that we need to be aware of them.

The same with chapter endings. A lot of books I’ve read lately end every chapter on a note of high suspense.

“What’s that at the end of the corridor?”

“Do I smell—gasoline?”

“That can’t be John! John’s dead!”

Which is all very well. We are often told to make the end of each chapter a cliffhanger so that the reader is compelled to read on. Unfortunately, this technique becomes predictable, candy after every meal. There are a lot of ways to end a chapter. You can end a chapter in the middle of action, the middle of a conversation, the middle of a fight, the end of a fight, even on a temporary resolution, or a final resolution for a minor character. It doesn’t have to be a bated-breath suspense point. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be every time. If the book’s premise is strong, a breathing space at the end of a chapter can be refreshing.

There is a way to catch some of your habits. Lay out the first page of each of your chapters in order. Yes, you can scan through your manuscript on your word processor, but it really does make a difference when you see them lined up together physically. Look for unintentional similarities.

Do the same with the last pages of your chapters.

I’m betting any one of us will find habits we didn’t know we had.

You don’t want to be predictable.

12 comments:

Marcus Sakey said...

What a cool idea, Barb. I think I'll start doing that. Thanks!

Barbara D'Amato said...

Whoa! A response from a master! Thanks, Marcus.

Dana King said...

Thanks, Barbara. This is definitely an idea worth trying. I also agree with your comments about chapter-ending cliffhangers. Variety at the beginning and the end of each chapter is important. I spend one draft of any book I'm working on reading only the first few and last few paragraphs of each chapter, mainly looking to see if the beginning sets up the rest of the chapter, and if the end makes me want to go on. (Sort of a microcosm of Mickey Spillane's adage: The first chapter seels this book. The last chapter sells your next book.)

Your post does bring a question to mind, re: the books that made you notice these things. Considering all the angst authors go through when waiting for feedback from their agents and editors, what the hell are the agents and editors commenting on? Obviously it must just be stuff like whether the potential readers think this is a happy enough ending, or whether the hero gets enough sex. Craft must never enter into these discussions.

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, I hope it wasn't my book you were reading--I have an uneasy feeling that I am guilty of all of those sins and more besides. One thing I found when I read the print-out of my newest novel is that I'd used the same simile about five separate times, without realizing it--and it wasn't that effective even the first time.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Dana--yes, I sometimes wonder where the editors are. But I often don't see these things in my own stuff, even though I read and reread. I think at first we--and the editors--are looking at flow and characterization, and, sure, market. Which is why I think tricks for checking are good.

Sara-absolutely not. I once used "oddly" about a dozen times in a manuscript, prompting my editor to say, "Why don't you show that it's odd and leave the dedution to the reader?" We're focused on so many, many things while we're writing, it's no wonder habits slip in.

jnantz said...

Damn, that's a great idea. I'm definitely going to have to remember this one!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I'm actually going to do this today, Barb.

Steerpike said...

Great post, Barbara. I think the danger of routine is especially challenging because some writers have achieved outlandish success with it. Consider Dan Brown, who has literally written the exact same book like five times now. Seriously -

-Novel opens with an older gent being murdered in a gruesome fashion
-Transpires that older gent is related to/guardian of a Lovely Young Female, usually in law enforcement, from whom he is estranged
-College professor inexplicably brought in to help with the case
-Professor and Lovely Young Female traipse about the globe, discovering along the way that some large entity (the Church, science, etc.) is bad
-Individual thought to be a friend turns out to be the villain
-Incongruous use of technology to bring said villain down
-Professor and LYF make out

And he's sold like a bazillion copies!

Still, I much prefer your approach of care and creativity.

Barbara D'Amato said...

jnantz and Kevin, I'm honored you like this.

And steerpike--Yes, if it works, go on with it, I guess. But maybe if he broke out of the mold now--?

Sean Chercover said...

What a great post, Barb! I am going to use your testing method from now on. Thanks.

Chris said...

That is so true! I found that to be the case with one of the authors I used to read a lot. Her books just lost their spark. Going to make sure that I'm keenly aware of this with my writing

Michael Dymmoch said...

Wonderful advice!