Monday, February 6, 2012

Causality & Chapters

             So that was nice, using the mobile metaphor to take one thing at a time in my first chapter.  It really worked, but sometimes all my over-analysis of how a story’s working can rein things in so tightly the story doesn’t get a chance to run.  So I have to swing back and forth from one metaphor to another depending on what my story needs.  Mapping mobiles and covering my dining room table with color-coded indexes cards helped me get a handle on things.

            However, I’m feeling uncomfortable about the way I ended up dividing my story into chapters.  I ended up with ten, long chapters that group elements of my story thematically –Emergency, Boundaries, Mothers, etc.  For a while that was working for me; it helped me see how theme was holding the story together.  But readers confirmed my nagging fear that these hulking chapters are not agile enough.  They are beautiful and they make an aesthetic mobile, and for a while they really helped me, but when it comes down to it I need to loosen the reins and let the forward motion of the story carry it forward. 

What I’m getting at is what makes a story a story is that is moves forward.  Each thing that happens causes the next thing, or it should.  Even if I build a beautiful mobile, at some point, I have to hang it up and let the wind blow through it.

            I remember one of my best writing teachers saying, a poem is not an essay.  And as prettily as I can structure a story, it is not a poem.  A story has to move forward.  As E. M. Forster memorably put it: if we write, “The king died, and the queen died,” we have a narrative, but if we write instead, “The king died and the queen died of grief,” then we have a plot.

            Right now, I’m reading Laini Taylor’s new book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  I am literally propelled through the story.  Her chapters are fairly short, they’re lean and nimble, each chapter causes the next one.  And though Laini titles each with a meaningful phrase from that chapter, she merely numbers the chapters and lets the story go as it must.  She has 60 chapters.  Sixty!  How freeing!  (She also groups her chapters into three or four large sections, the way you would group scenes in a play into the major acts.  She does this by slipping in a page with a changing refrain to introduce each act.)  But by and large, she lets each scene emerge from the one before, and I turn the pages like I’m slapping the story-horse I’m riding to go, go, go as fast as it can!

            So I am inspired to loosen my reins on this next draft.  Now that I understand the structure of my story (thanks to mobiles), I’m going to try something different.  Instead of guiding my horse through a tightly designed equestrian jumping course, I’m going to loosen the reins and just let the story run, run, run.  One short chapter causing the next.  Yee-hah!

            Are you still struggling with chapter division and its effect on the story?  I’d love to here what you’re trying!


  1. I went through a phase where I overstructured my manuscripts. I did the snowflake method (ever tried that one?), I filed a notecard for every time my character tossed her hair, I wrote 10 pages character summaries complete with favorite foods, colors, etc. and what I found is very close to what you've written here. The magic of the story is the forward motion, the way the characters take on a life of their own that is unexpected and often illogical. If you plan and structure the story too tightly, there's no room for your characters to breathe. So your instincts are great. Let the wind blow through that mobile of yours, and you'll be amazed at the life it will breathe into your story. Keep up the good work. Enjoying your blog.

    1. Donna, Thanks for your comment! I love that we're getting a bit of writerly conversation going here! Thanks for your encouragement. I like your point that :the magic of the story is in the forward motion. I still think I had to figure out where I wanted the story to go first, and Patti Lee Gauch underscored that at her Highlights workshop --she was a staunch advocate of maps for beginning writers. Without that understanding of the mechanics of the story itself, I think my story could have wandered aimlessly. I'm glad now that I have both a well-structured mobile and a breeze blowing! Do you map your stories?