I don’t think in chapters when I write.
I used to, when I was young and thought that’s what writers did. Start with chapter titles and go from there. I remember reading a book as a kid that started every chapter with a quote from some philosopher, so I thought that’s what I had to do if I wanted my writing to be serious. Now, it’s pretty obvious how ridiculous that is. To begin with some very secondary aspect of writing, like the dedication or the back cover, and get that written before anything else.
There are a lot of “techniques” to better writing, and I put that in quotes because I’ve always had a very tenuous opinion of them.
The thing about writers is that we are always looking for a way to get around actually writing. So there’s always this allure of “technique”, of some formula or system that will make the process easier. Whether it’s software or a special kind of journal or whatever. Some part of us is always looking for a shortcut.
Of course, the truth is there isn’t one. When asked what their advice on writing is, some of the best authors in the world simply hold up a piece of paper and a pencil.
At the same time, that’s not to say there aren’t certain techniques that work, but I’ve found that the ones that do usually only work after you’ve already done the writing. Most of these challenge us to consider the work from a different angle, and we can’t do that unless we have something written to consider.
There is value in looking at our writing in a non-writing way. What I mean by that is, in a way that isn’t just the mass of words sitting in a document. Because there are aspects that we can miss, especially while we are, hopefully, writing.
Like the shape of a story.
I went to graduate school for creative writing, with an emphasis on screenwriting, and if there’s one type of writing that is dedicated to the shape of a story, it’s screenwriting. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the particulars, screenplays work on the three-act system, which is a structure that shows up in lots of fiction, but was codified into the industry standard by Syd Field. What the three-act structure means for scripts is that you can predict, down to the page number, how a story is going to go. There are lots of reasons for this, the chief of which is that’s how you sell movies. No one’s interested in reading your experimentally plotted screenplay.
I haven’t written a screenplay in a while, but I was reminded recently how structure can show up in novels, and how I should be aware of it so that it can be shaped properly.
Intrinsically, I think, we’re all aware of story shape, even if we don’t have a real structured understanding of it. Mostly we notice it when it’s not properly done. We’ve all ready novels that dragged, spending way too much time on exposition or boring descriptive text. We’ve also probably read stories that didn’t spend enough times on important things.
Bad writing, it happens to the best of us.
But it can be hard to take that intuition and apply it to our own work, especially when we’re staring at that mass of words. Structure can get lost in a full-length novel. We literally can’t see the forest, the overall shape, for the tress, paragraphs, sentences, individual words.
But I learned a technique, from screenwriting, that can help. It starts with notecards, a writer’s best friend. You take your story and you write out each plot point on a notecard. It might be a single scene or a particular sequence. Anything that belongs together. Something like “Character talks to whatshisname”, but not “character walks in door”, (new card), “character sits down”, (new card). You get the idea.
What you’re basically doing is writing out a summary, card-by-card, of your story, in its smallest, inseparable units. Then you can lay them out in the order they’re currently in within your draft. Once you have them, laid out like that, you’ll start to notice things. Like where major plot points land within the overall structure of the story. You’ll also be able to see where you’re spending time on certain things. It’s amazing how just this simple act can give you an entirely different perspective on your story.
I did this recently on a novel I just completed. I had written some extra material that I was trying to figure out how to integrate.
(Yes, I’m still working on the fanfiction novel. No, I don’t know why.)
What this technique allows you to do is play around with the order of your story without actually touching the story itself. I wrote cards for the new sections and was able to play around with inserting them here and there. I could immediately see that certain plot points fell in natural spots. I was then able to insert the new stuff without harming the existing structure and space it all out in a way that didn’t feel like I was spending too much time on one thing.
And, unexpectedly, I was able to figure out my chapters as well. The natural shape of the story helped me group sequences into sections that made sense.
I’ve recommended this technique to a few writer friends, but I can’t stress enough how it is best done after you’ve already done the writing.
There are a lot of things to consider about the finished product of a story, but we can’t consider them all from the start, and we shouldn’t. For one, the story itself will often tell us these things. I haven’t started a novel that didn’t end up progressing in a different way than I had planned. For another, keeping all this in mind, even the shape of a story, can make it more difficult to get the writing done.
That’s the power of first drafts. The most important thing is to get the freakin’ words on the freakin’ page. Once they’re there, then you can start shaping and sharpening and editing. There’s no reason to worry about these things while you are writing. In fact, worrying about them will only make it harder to write.
But we can’t forget them. Because they are an important part of the story. Just as much as dialogue and description and character development. They are one more way to convey our ideas, and that’s the point.
You can see when it’s not there. Novels that drag or switch points of view so you don’t know what’s going on. The story itself might be intriguing, but it makes it harder to read.
I don’t pretend to be a master of it myself, but I’ve written, and read, enough stories to know structure’s important for no other reason than our minds look for it. One could argue it’s hardwired into us. So, if you can craft your story, shape it into something that makes sense then you make it easier to read.
And that’s the point. To make it easier to read, so people will actually read it.