Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ditch the chapters--for now

Many of us think and write in chapters. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a common way to think about your story. What's more, if we're in a critique group, our chapters have a habit of being about the same length as the number of pages we read at each crit session.

I'm guessing many of you can't easily imagine writing a book without doing it a chapter at a time. Today, I'd like to present an option that I've found freeing in my own writing:

Ditch the chapters. For now, anyway.

The basic building block of any story is the scene. According to many writing teachers and books about writing, a story is a string of scenes joined by sequels. You most likely know this, and you might use a certain number of scenes in each chapter.

But what if you don't worry about chapters while drafting your masterpiece? What do you gain?

Freedom. Freedom to end your chapters where they make the most sense later. Freedom to skip a difficult scene and move on to the next one. Freedom to concentrate on your scenes and worry about the bigger structural pieces later.

We've all rearranged the order of our chapters at some point in our writing. If you concentrate on chapters, this can give you a plot where the chapters make sense, but some of the scenes seem wrong. It's much easier to move scenes around than chapters. You probably do that anyway, which makes it so you have to redo several chapter endings.

You might insert new chapters, and have to renumber everything.

If you're having trouble with a chapter, you might skip it and move to another chapter. If you think in scenes, you can skip to a new scene.

If you think about scenes rather than chapters, if you keep each scene in a Scrivener file instead of a chapter, you can concentrate more on that basic building block, and you free yourself to reorganize and rearrange in smaller bits. You start to think more about your scenes and sequels and make sure they work, rather than thinking about your chapters.

Writing scenes and ignoring chapters can also help you plow through the story while keeping your inner critic in check. If you tell your story without structuring it like a book, you free yourself to write that crappy first draft without the additional mental pressure that comes with writing a "book." You're just writing. A story or a project or whatever is much easier to grasp than that monumental book concept. Just get it down and structure it later. Let it be messy. It might even be helpful to use a simple editor that discourages you from thinking about your formatting, like some of the distraction-free writing programs that are growing in popularity.

Later, when you revise (I recommend waiting until a draft near the final one), you can put in your chapter breaks. You might discover that you can come up with more effective chapter breaks if you wait. Like cliffhangers? Break your chapter mid-scene, or between the scene and the sequel.

Try this approach, especially if you struggle with structure or plot. Enjoy the freedom it gives you.

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