Constructing Scenes and Chapters
Chapters are the building blocks of a novel, and scenes are the building blocks of chapters. Longer chapters will likely contain a balance of scene and summary, while short chapters may consist of a single scene.
When I begin writing a novel, I keep a notebook in which I maintain a list of scenes that need to be written. This list is what I go to when I sit down at my desk each day. I started working this way years ago, after I had my son, when my writing time was severely limited. I credit those expensive babysitting hours with teaching me how to be a more efficient novelist. At $20 per hour, I had to get something on the page!
I still use lists. Some days, you'll sit down and be inspired. Many days, if you're like most writers, you won't. That's when the list of scenes will save your writing time and your sanity.
Building the Scene List
Creating a list of necessary scenes forces you to think about what has to happen in your novel. You need scenes that:
Inciting Actions: Not Just One, But Many
We're all familiar with the fact that a novel must begin with an inciting action: the event that sets all of the other events of the novel in motion.
But did you know that your novel will have more than one inciting action? In fact, it will have many more. Ideally, every scene in your book will play out like a microcosm of the narrative as a whole, with an inciting action, a progression of conflict (the rising action), and a climax.
In most of your chapters, ideally, your protagonist will be faced with a choice. The chapter will include either an action that subtly or not-so-subtly shifts the story, or some kind of revelation that subtly or not-so-subtly shifts the story.
When you examine each one of your scenes, ask yourself:
The inciting action may be internal or external, but if it doesn't exist in some form, the chapter will lack momentum.
So, if you read your novel-in-progress and feel that it lacks urgency or momentum, it may be because your chapters are not constructed with a beginning, middle, and end. A scene or chapter cannot be amorphous. It must move the bigger story along, while providing the feel of something completely rendered. That is not to say that a chapter should be self-contained in subject matter and character, rather that it should be self-contained structurally.
While cliffhangers can be a good way to end a chapter, avoid melodrama in your final sentences. There should be a natural tension in the space between what has happened in the scene, and what the reader expects to happen next.
Notes on Nonfiction Plotting & Point of View
Although Tangled Vines is nonfiction, I think it can teach novelists plenty about plot and characterization. I'd like to take a moment to discuss plotting and point of view techniques that you can learn from Tangled Vines, whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction:
Plotting with a Story Chart
One of the most helpful ways I've found to plot out my novels is to use visual aids. My go-to aid for quite some time has been a simple Post-it calendar (you can find these at Target or here at Amazon.) The calendar provides a color-coded map of characters, locations, and themes. Watch my story chart video for an explanation.
Recently, however, I've come upon another visual aid--slightly more complicated, but possibly more useful in the long run. I was inspired by Shawn Coyne's Story Grid, which I've distilled into a simpler story chart. I make my chart on Word, but if you're handy with xcel, that would work to. My chart is a table with several columns, and each chapter gets its own row. The columns include:
Here's an example of the first page of my story chart, which runs 17 pages. You'll notice that the "Turning Point" column hasn't been filled in on most of the chapters, nor has the "idea/complication" column. At this point, I was just laying out the word count, onstage and offstage characters, point of view, location, time, and story event. In other words, I was doing the easy work! I actually created this chart after I had a complete draft of my novel. You may find it helpful to create your chart before you begin, midway through the book, or after you have a draft. It really depends on how much planning you like to do.
While Coyne offers a very helpful system, it's clear from an examination of the planning techniques of novelists through the decades that this kind of chart has been around for a long time.The Daily Mail published photographs of the handwritten story-planning pages of a number of writers, including James Salter, JK Rowling, Sylvia Plath, Jennifer Egan, Norman Mailer, the recently infamous Gay Talese, Henry Miller, and Joseph Keller.
I was struck by the resemblance of Heller's and Rowling's story planners to the method suggested by Coyne. Below is Heller's highly detailed chart for Catch 22.
View an expandable version here. Heller keeps a detailed chronology on the left hand side, and has columns for each of his characters; Yossarian's column is understandably the largest, encompassing three full columns instead of the single column granted to the other characters. He also has a column for casualties; it's unclear if he intended the casualties column to be composed of characters, or of the events that happened to these unfortunate characters.
(As the other charts are not, to my knowledge, in the public domain, I cannot reproduce them here. Please follow this link to see them.)
Rowling's chart has columns for Time, Chapter Title, Plot (in which she describes what happens in each chapter), and plenty of other things I can't make out in the handwriting. I have a feeling that we writers intentionally cultivate handwriting that is illegible to everyone but ourselves, in order to keep the secrets of our stories!
Salter divides his plot into parts 1-6, all on a single page, each part delineated by a simple bracket. I love his big note to himself at the top of the page, written in bold letters and circled enthusiastically: "AT THE END GO THROUGH NOTEBOOKS!"
I have a few "cuts" files for every novel I've ever written. Every time I cut something, it is with the intention of going back and seeing what I've left out before I send the novel on to my editor. I even have a heading in each file, "THIS MUST GO BACK IN." However, I would estimate that only about half of the time, probably less, do the paragraphs/chapters under "THIS MUST GO BACK IN" actually make it back in. There was a reason, after all, for cutting them. Did the story bleed when I cut it? No? In that case, it can stay in the graveyard of the cuts file. While my failure to re-insert pages from my cuts files is probably motivated in part by fatigue--one produces such volumes of material when writing a novel--it also has something to do with the fact that, ultimately, the passage in question proved unnecessary.
Egan keeps a tidy story chart for her story "Black Box," although it's easier to be tidy with a story than with a whole novel. Mailer begins with a symmetrical grid, but his color-coded handwriting and balloon-like containers almost render the grid invisible. Mailer's left hand column is reserved for the date, like some of the others. What is most interesting to me about Mailer's, though, is a column toward the right hand side of the page, "World Events," in which he notes what is going on in the world on that date--the global backdrop, the bigger picture against which his novel plays out.
What these charts demonstrate is that:
Essential Elements of a Good Plot
During week 2, a student asked a question that I think bears repeating: What makes up a good plot? In case you missed it in the discussion, I am posting my answer here.
Finally, it should have falling action--that brief segment in the narrative timeline in which we discover what all of this means, the aftermath the climax.
To Read This Week
Although Parts 1 & 2 of Tangled Vines were originally your scheduled reading this week, it turns out that almost everyone in the class is writing a novel instead of nonfiction. For that reason, Tangled Vines is now optional reading. For our weekly readings, we will turn to essays on craft.
Readings on Craft
On Plot and Pacing from The Center for Fiction, by Simon Van Booy
Man in a Hole: Turning Novels' Plots into Data Point, by Dan Piepenbring for The Paris Review