I’m brainstorming an idea I want to try to explain to a member of my writer’s group. As always, as I explain something, I get better at actually doing it myself.
Okay, you have a first draft. You know what your story is about. You know your characters, conflicts, settings, etc. But your chapters aren’t as exciting as they could be (perhaps not even the first chapter).
Well, it could be one of a number of things. You might be putting too much extraneous scaffolding in the story (internal monologue, backstory, etc.). Your style might be so sloppy that people are turned off before they get to the good stuff. The details (or the premise) of your story might be so cheesy that people roll their eyes.
Let’s say it’s not that – it’s that the chapters just don’t suck you in. They don’t flow. All the drama and information you need are presented in the chapter, but the events aren’t ordered in a way that captures the reader’s attention.
- The main character is happy.
- Then the main character thinks about an upcoming event and worries about it.
- Something random but bad (which will matter later) happens to the main character.
- The character blows it off and goes shopping.
- The character stops at Starbucks.
- The character is manhandled into confronting her fears of the upcoming event.
- The character receives an ominous warning.
- Something random but bad (not the same as the first time, still something that will matter later) happens to the main character.
Now, this is how first drafts go – like life, all over the place. But the idea of writing a story is that you take something that is kind of like life and put a layer of magic over it – the sense that everything that happens is meaningful (even if its meaning is to stress that life has no ultimate meaning).
What is that layer of magic? How can you make sure that everything in your story has a meaning?
First, figure out what it is you mean. (Writers often miss the obvious, have you ever noticed? Well, maybe not.)
Second, order the events and information in your story in such a way that 1) one event causes the next and 2) the information your readers need is revealed through events or in a way that ties into the events (e.g., through a specific character).
To order your events, first write them down, as they actually occur in the chapter (see the example above).
Then decide what your chapter is about – this can be an action, like “introduce the main character” or “establish conflict,” but it’s more interesting to come up with a plot hook. For me, the best (most entertaining) way to do this is with unreasonably long chapter titles, for example, “Chapter 1. In Which Our Heroine Tries to Keep Her Hopes up but Fails Miserably.”
Next, reorder the events in the chapter to reflect the title. In the example, we have to first show our heroine trying to keep her hopes up, and then explain why she fails miserably.
Here’s one way to do that:
- Something bad happens to the main character.
- She’s upset; nevertheless, she forces herself to go out on the town.
- In so doing, she gets talked into doing something she doesn’t want to do (confronting a fear). (Come on! It’ll be fun!)
- The fear confronts her back, giving her a warning of worse things to come.
- The warning comes to pass, and the main character despairs.
You may want to cut off the chapter just as the last event happens – but make sure to give the character’s reaction to the cliffhanger in the next chapter (or the next chapter she’s in, if you have multiple POVs).
Remember to make sure:
- The beginning foreshadows or sets up the end.
- Each step connects to the previous step.
- The events all relate to what your chapter is about.
Note: Almost as if by magic, the first event in the ordered example is more interesting than the first event in the unordered example. If it isn’t, go back and think about the point of the chapter. If the point of the chapter is interesting, and the beginning of the chapter hooks into the point of the chapter, the beginning of the chapter should be interesting – in fact, each step should automatically be interesting.
But what about all the information that isn’t directly related to the point of the chapter?
Like backstory? Or description? Or setting up a plot point for a future chapter?
First, try to work the information into the plot (“show not tell”). Many a dramatic moment has been killed by trying to sum up something. As a rule of thumb, if conflict is implied, consider writing a scene either showing it or using the information in real-time (i.e., instead of telling the reader the heroine cheated on her ex, either show the scene or have the ex’s mother confront her about it, in front of the hero).
Keep in mind, the information may not belong in the current chapter. For example, your story has a romantic scene in which the two characters are embarrassed by how attracted they are to each other and in which you decide to mention the tragic death of the heroine’s mother, because it just happens to come up in conversation. Move the backstory about the mother to the chapter where the hero finds out something truly embarrassing about the heroine, and she tries to make him feel sorry for her (by telling him about her mother and what a terrible childhood she had), and he pushes her away for getting all defensive and prickly. Again, it helps if you know what each chapter is about. (Or change the point of the original chapter to account for the revelation – change from “romantic scene” to “the heroine ruins a perfectly good romantic scene.”)
Second, turn the information into something that comes specifically from one character’s point of view – into character development. Don’t just say your hero is good-looking; have your sardonic, culturally-hip heroine note the hero looks like Bruce Willis. Better yet, have her friend say, “He looks like Bruce Willis,” and have the character say, “Yeah. But not Die Hard. First season Moonlighting, at best.”*
If nothing else, you can develop a character for your narrator, which is much less boring than a boring narrator.
Third, imply the information. If you were writing a mystery, you would want your clues to be out in the open, but not obvious. You want your reader to be paying attention, right? Don’t start out your chapter with “I knew it was going to be a hot day” unless you’re not saying something, like “I got up before dawn and killed Melanie, because I knew it was going to be a hot day.” Instead (and even better), start out your chapter with clues: “I fell asleep around dawn, just when it started to cool off. But by then it was too late.”
Now your story reads, if not like Shakespeare, then at least like the bestsellers that you know you can write better than. “So what if she can plot? I can plot AND I can write chapters that grab your interest and keep it. AND I can write prose that doesn’t make your eyes water.”
Moral superiority will soon be yours. Guaranteed.
*”But I liked the first season of Moonlighting.”