1. Are the Opening Paragraphs Slowing it Down
Chapter divisions are a necessary part of a book, helping to pace the whole, but this doesn’t mean you have to give them too much respect and spend endless paragraphs at the beginning of the chapter re-introducing the setting, plot or characters. The very best chapter openings are those that take the readers straight into the action, resisting the temptation to recap an overview of the story so far or simply take a literary breath, where nothing is actually happening, but somehow you’ve kept the pen moving. Whatever’s happening in your chapter, get to the point as quickly as you can to keep the book moving forward.
2. What Do We Know Now About the Plot that We Didn’t Know in the Last Chapter?
This question could be rephrased to ask ‘what is the point of this chapter’? This is something that it is useful for you to know before you start writing to keep you on track. As an editor, I often read chapters where it seems that nothing in particular happens. One reason for this is that the author has forgotten their creative licence and taken a linear pathway through the story rather than simply picking and choosing a tightly plotted route where something is always happening to take us ever onwards. That’s the beauty of being a writer; you really don’t have to include all the boring bits that happen in life in order to get the interesting bit. Be succinct in your writing and make sure that every single chapter moves your reader forward in some way. Remember, ours is such a disposable culture that it only takes one slow or ‘bad’ chapter where nothing much is happen for a reader to potentially pass you over for another read.
3. How Has Your Lead Character (Other Characters) Developed?
Again this is about making every chapter count. Use your plot development and the interaction between characters to show us exactly what makes your characters tick. Ideally they will be constantly affected by the events of your novel, so take the time to ask what this particular chunk of story is going to do to them. If your characters remain essentially unchanged throughout then something has gone wrong.
4. Is Any Part of the Chapter Unnecessary?
There are a range of reasons why parts of the chapter may be unnecessary, two of which are outlined in the preceding questions (not progressing plot or character). The ideal is for you to keep moving forward, and cutting unnecessary passages will help this, whether it’s that you are spending a little too long hammering a point home that you nailed in a few paragraphs, or you’ve written a killer description that you love, but it really is slowing the narrative down. It could be that you have chunks that are a little repetitive because you want to feel confident that you have got your point across. Have faith in your readers and your own writing ability that they will understand what you are writing immediately without dead, repetitive passages. Be ruthless in your cutting to create the best possible read.
5. What is there for Your Readers to Wonder About?
This is a huge question, responding directly to the reasons that readers choose to read at all. Whatever you are writing, you need to be one step ahead of the reader because readers want to be challenged. Mystery is not simply the domain of the crime writer; whatever you are writing, you need to leave your readers guessing. If you are asking what there is for your readers to wonder about with every chapter you write, you stand a good chance of creating a book that will deeply satisfy even the most skilled, plot-unravelling mind.
6. What is there for Your Readers to Care About?
Another reason that readers read is pure escapism and it is your responsibility to create an island for their imaginary vacation. The only way that this can happen is for you to get your readers emotionally involved, so you have to continually ask what you have created that your readers will care about. This is an extremely loose question because there are a number of ways to care and it is up to you to decide which is appropriate for you and your story. Empathy is the key here; if readers are able to relate to the characters you are creating and the situations that you put them in then you have a jumpstart.
7. Has Any Opportunity for Action Been Missed?
This is an interesting point to make and not one that is always apparent to the writer unless they make a point of adding it to a chapter checklist. Again this has become apparent to me as an editor, reading fiction of all kinds, and relates to how you choose to tell your story. Of course, there are many ways to plot events in a novel and quite simply, the most exciting route is a wrecking ball through the middle of the drama as it happens. This is how truly exciting fiction emerges. Let me qualify this by giving you an example of the alternative: picture a thriller, perhaps a detective novel, where the protagonist spends most of his or her time thinking, going over evidence, talking to people, cracking on with the clues and then eventually solving the case. It sounds good, but how much better would it be if the same protagonist always arrived at times of danger and has to put his or her life on the line to get to the truth and the clues put him or her under further private peril and he or she barely scrapes it to the end of the book in one piece? Just as mystery isn’t just the domain of the mystery writer, thriller writers don’t have the monopoly on action. Even if you are writing a non-genre, literary thinker, a love story or a comedy, you need to keep your readers engaged by keeping the stakes as high as you can.
8. Has Any Opportunity for Originality Been Missed?
While we’re making sure that you haven’t missed any opportunities, take a moment to do an originality check. Have you read or seen anything you have written in this chapter before? Worse, have you bought into any clichés that are dominating this chapter? One of the most wonderful things about being a writer is being able to present a unique view of the world to readers. This should be presented on many levels throughout the book, from the overall vision that you want to achieve and the characters and plot that gets you there, to the way events are presented throughout each chapter, right down to language level, where you are being inventing and using your personal voice to create a unique reading experience. Taking the time to check that you haven’t sloped off into a world that’s just too familiar will help you as you write each chapter.
9. Is Everything Right?
This will seem like a ridiculously broad question to ask of your chapter, but accuracy is important. I have read books where Mr Smith began as a blonde teacher and ended as a ginger accountant. I have read books where he started as Mr Smith and somehow became Mr Schmitt by the end. She grew up in Suffolk but somehow now has a Geordie accent? We’re told in the first chapter that he always calls her lollypop because of the size of her head, but then we never actually see him call her it. It’s all about consistency and accuracy. Some writers keep notes as they write to make sure that they aren’t having crises of continuity. Chapter by chapter, it may just be an idea to have a read through what you’ve already written so that you are avoiding glaring errors and equally usefully, creating a consistent reading experience in terms of your style. This is also a great time to mention SHOW don’t TELL, which I’m hoping needs no further explanation.
10. Will the Ending Keep the Pages Turning?
Chapter endings give readers the option of reading on or slipping their bookmark in for the night and coming back to you another day. Ideally you want the former, so approach the end of the chapter with this in mind. I have read books where every chapter ends with a cliff-hanger, which was great apart from the fact that I don’t remember getting any sleep at all throughout the whole reading experience. Not every book needs to have this level of drama, but ask yourself how you can end your chapter to guarantee, at the very least, a return visit from the reader. An unresolved issue is great. What also works is a reveal – readers will always want to read on to see what happens next. Surprises and twists are great also. Basically I would just encourage you to utilize what you have with the beginnings and endings of chapters and steer clear of ‘the day begins’ and ‘the day ends’ kinds of openings and closings. Chapter divides are a great tool for you to explore and master, so take the time and see what you can do.
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Hundreds of books pass through Hayley Sherman's inbox each year. This book is a culmination of her experience as an editor and offers advice, examples and more than 40 exercises to help you achieve a novel to be proud of.
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