Life is a series of chapters, and each one has a different flavour. Paul McCartney once said that being a member of the Beatles felt as if it belonged to a previous life, or words to that effect. I’ve lived long enough to relate to that expression. During my twenties, I travelled the world with the Royal Navy, and that is an experience I find difficult to relate to in my present circumstances. Each chapter in life is broken into clear experiences, but the chapters in our novels ought to be very different.
My Experience of Writing a Crime Novel
I began to create my fictional world several years before I began writing it down. I believe I created a realistic industrial town for my characters to carry out their roles, with an authentic history of its own. The trouble is that nobody wants that information stuffed down their throat, especially in the first chapter.
I changed that opening chapter seven or eight times until very little of my fine old town had any space at all – just a hint of its character here and there. Action takes pride of place, with a few hints detailing the promise of the story, and a hook.
I’d written perhaps a third of the novel before presenting parts of it to a writing group, the precursor to Phoenix Writers which I now frequent. At that time, each chapter began with too much description before the vocabulary kicked off.
“Begin there,” a colleague always said. “We don’t want all that pre-amble. Just feed in a little of that information alongside the clues relating to the crime.”
But what about my town?
The Wisdom of Experience
A published writer explained the problem in a more effective way. If I were to construct a graph for my chapters with emotion as the perpendicular axis, the line would take the shape of a hill – suggesting all the action would be taking shape in the middle of the chapter.
The graph should display emotion in the shape of a valley, with hooks at the start and end of the chapter. Every chapter.
His point being that I had my emotional cycle the wrong way round.
Why do we have chapters in a novel?
As an author, we really need the reader to put the book down, as most people have to at some point or other, at a point when they are desperate to know what will happen next. If the reader breaks off from the novel in the middle of a long period of information and explanation, he or she may never return to the book.
Most people prefer to break off at the end of a chapter or at a page break, so these places have to be soaked in drama. It doesn’t have to be action packed, just a simple observation such as, “The Gestapo surrounded my house,” or, “she didn’t look back,” will do the trick. Plenty of white space at the beginning of the next chapter will make it more inviting for the reader.
What must a chapter do?
The reader begins a chapter with certain expectation of where it will end. It is the writer’s responsibility to insert a number of twists. Maybe one of the characters has a personality trait that is unexpected, or the villain does something the protagonist, or the reader, isn’t expecting. In any event, questions should be asked and the story should have changed in some way.
Eventually I finished the novel, but it became part of a learning process rather than a publishable work. As a crime novel, it lacks realistic clues for the reader to get their teeth into. Also, I have written it with too many points of view so it is difficult for the reader to empathise with any particular character and follow them on their journey.
I’m now embarking on an adventure novel which, if I’m honest, is more my kind of read. The protagonist is from the indigenous population of Bolivia, a country I visited on holiday. The endeavour of these people is fascinating. I want to show the horrendous way they have been treated by outsiders, and the sense of community that keeps the peasants alive against all odds. New chapters are being faced by rural settlements and villagers are forced into paid employment in unfavourable conditions by the changing weather patterns – and their self-sufficiency is threatened. I didn’t write this kind of novel in the first place because I thought it would be harder to research; and so it turned out. Not knowing the cultural history in sufficient detail makes it hard to create rounded characters, but more rewarding with each tiny success.