Monday, October 31, 2011

Chapters: Moving Character Forward

A really good example of how a chapter moves a character forward in her inner and outer life is Chapter 46 of Laurie Halse Anderon's Wintergirls.  In this chapter Lia’s dad finds her dozing on the couch and decides she needs to eat.  A phone call from Lia’s friend, Cassie, now dead of her own eating disorder, prompts Lia’s dad to wonder how Lia really feels inside before announcing she will be reevaluated for inpatient care.  Then the two spar hurling issues at eat other, the fight ending when Lia stuffs a sandwich in her mouth asking him if that’s what he wants.  The chapter makes it really clear that the external struggle for Lia is food –will she eat?  However, internally, family issues like divorce, infidelity, and attention to relationships are boiling.  By the end of this chapter, Lia makes the decision to confront her father –is this all you want?  me stuffing a sandwich in my mouth?  Subtext: there is more to this eating disorder and we both know it.
So there is the external struggle: food, and their is the internal struggle underlying it: the unaddressed family issues.  The characters challenge each other to take the next step forward in both of these conflicts.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Four Things that Make a Chapter

            I went back and raided my notes from Patti Lee Gauch’s Highlights Founders Workshop called Starting Your Novel, and I pulled out four statements about chapterness.  At the time these statements had seemed obvious enough, but now with my novel spread out in note cards, they were real food for thought.  Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls had was also out on the table, and I decided to study her book using these four statements:

1)    A chapter moves the character forward in his/her inner and outer life.
2)    Going far enough (emotionally) and giving the characters choices moves the story forward.
3)    Arcs in the story rise in the middle because of a complication.
4)    Arcs clump to form chapters.

Wintergirls is not one of those books with short, pearl-like chapters, nor are the chapters consistent in length or structure.   I was going to have to really analyze what Anderson was doing with her chapters.  So I read Wintergirls a couple of times, took a lot of notes, and made a lot of little drawing to describe the chapters.  These were chapters that developed organically, each with its own needs, and many providing great examples of the principles above. 
            Watch for my next post in which I tear apart some of Laurie Halse Anderson's expertly crafted chapters to see how they work.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


            I was sitting in Cynthea Liu’s Revision 911 workshop avidly scrawling notes when she pointed out that the end of a chapter does not occur just because you’ve reached the end of a scene.  Of course not, I thought joining the writers around me in their nodding, but uh, so, what exactly is a chapter then?  I put chapterness  on my list of writing stuff to investigate, but didn’t face it directly until this summer when the first draft of my novel  was spread across the dining room table on one hundred note cards.
            So what makes a chapter a chapter then?  I’d always like books with those short two or three page chapters strung like pearls on the string to make a story.  A spotlight flashing on each vignette and then fading quickly out, leaving the audience to consider what the collage of short chapters said as a whole.  But I rarely wrote that way.  The note cards on my dining room table were arranged into ten chapter groups.  I’d just kind of intuited what held together.  Some of my chapters even had a titles that held their scenes together thematically.  But there were a lot of scenes in each chapter.  Did I really have ten books in my story (Book I, Book II, etc) that should each be divided into smaller chapters?  I just kept coming back to what makes a chapter?  And how do chapters build one upon the other?
            I'll be following up on these questions in a short study of Lauris Halse Anderson's Wintergirls over the course of my next several post.  In the meantime I'd love to hear your ideas on what makes a chapter?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Great Voice Exercises

I searched everywhere to find writing exercises that would elicit strong character voice in my writing.  Here are some of the best I found and invented.

  1. Write a letter from one character to another.  Variations: about a major problem this character is having, have the second character write back and refuse the help requested –for both include specific reasons help is needed or refused.
  2. Write a character’s prayer.
  3. Pretend your character is telling a story to his/her best friend
  4. One-Minute Play: Write a 1 at the center of the top of a page.  Skip a line, and at the center of the next line, write 2.  Continue until you fill the page.  1 and 2 are the names of the characters in a play, and the first line begins, “Hey, did you see that…”  Fill the page in one minute. (Young Playwrights, Inc.)
  5. Two characters, who normally have a good relationship, today have a serious problem.  What is each thinking that remains unsaid? (Young Playwrights, Inc.)
  6. Phone Call:  Write a scene in which your character calls someone to get something s/he wants.  While s/he is calling, give him/her some activity to perform like cooking dinner.
  7. Find a place to write where you can observe various people.  Spend five minutes writing the internal dialogue of one person.  Repeat at least twice.
  8. Imagine what kind of animal your character might be.  What are some traits of this animal.  Rewrite a scene focusing on the human character’s animal traits.  Try including dialogue and internal monologue.
  9.  Write a scene in which your character’s spoken word contrasts with his/her inner thoughts.
  10.  Write a monologue in which your character NEEDS TO TELL something, considering who s/he will tell and perhaps where they are.  The character doesn’t need to say IT right away, but IT should drive his/her words. (Young Playwrights, Inc.)
  11. Imagine two of your characters interviewing each other.  How does each reveal who s/he is in both his/her responses and questions?
  12.  Greetings: Write a very short scene in which the characters greet each other, noticing their physical state (ie. heartbeat, etc.), their body language, what words of greeting they use, their tone.  Try other scenarios with different moods or levels of stress.
  13. Speech Rhythms: Take a dialogue scene you’ve written that falls a little flat.  Rewrite it playing attention to the voices’ pacing, rhythm, height, volume, etc.
  14. Write a scene using two lines of overheard dialogue and/or two observed behaviors.
  15.  How we see the world affects the metaphors in which we think.  Write a monologue for a character using a metaphor (indicative of his/her thinking) which  you extend throughout the exercise.  Experiment with another character’s account of the same situation.
  16.  Consider how setting affects voice.  How might the sounds of the environment or music create variations in your character’s voice?
  17.  Write a dialogue in which a character has to keep an internal conflict secret.
  18.  Have one character introduce another to someone else in the book.
  19.  Have a character recount a dream.
  20. Choose a significant object from your character’s environment.  What would it see? hear?  What stories could it tell?  Without describing or revealing the object’s identity, have the object say something it needs to tell at this particular moment. (Young Playwrights, Inc.)
  21.  What is your character’s favorite color?  Imagine how it appears in his/ her environment and what the color tells you about him/her.  Free write your character’s voice as if it were this color and then as if it were two other variations of this color –ie. rose pink, fire engine red, magenta.
  22.  Consider different ways a character could use a pause in his/her speech.
  23.  Be your character telling his/her best friend a story.
  24.  Try contrasting the content and tone of your character’s speech.
  25. Choose a scene you have already written but feel uneasy about.  For some reason, this scene isn't gelling; you might not be sure why.  Now, rewrite it, using a totally different narrative voice.  For example, if it's third person, narrate it from the point of view of one of the characters instead; if it's past tense, try present tense; if it's very poetic, try keeping it sparse and factual.
  26.  Send your viewpoint character to the mall with a quiet friend. Let him or her describe what they like or dislike, and why, while window shopping, browsing through a bookstore, trying out the latest electronics, etc.
  27.  Coop your character up in a room alone: a bedroom, a conference room, a doctor’s exam room. Is he or she frustrated? Antsy? Bored? Nervous? Scared? Write his or her thoughts when stuck there for an hour.
  28.  Have one character tell another about someone s/he doesn’t like.  In variations of this exercise consider that the character should be revealing more about him/herself than about the person s/he is describing.
  29.  Imagine your character strikes a match. S/he must describe his/her life history while the match remains alight.
  30.  Free write two dialogues for your character, but vary his/her status in each.
  31.  Write an internal monologue of a character in which s/he remembers a very embarrassing moment.
  32.  Write one page in a character’s secret diary.
  33.  Have a character write an excuse note.
  34.  Hot-seat or have another character hot-seat your main character, asking challenging questions.
  35.  Have one character overhear two others talking privately.
  36.  Have your character write a poem in response to an important event.
  37.  Experiment with having a character saying the opposite of what s/he means.
  38.  What has brought you to your knees?  You can answer this yourself or have a character answer it.  (Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning)
If you have any more great voice exercises, post them in your response!