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Sunday, 10 November 2013

WRITING FICTION. THE CHAPTER TEST.

For chapterless works, take a different approach. (A warier one.)

If you plan to write a work of fiction divided into chapters, or acts, there's an important test to apply. Of the piece under consideration, ask yourself this question...

Does something important happen in the chapter?

   Be brutal. If you manage to answer yes, then that part of your writing passes the chapter test. (That's if you manage to answer yes. Apply honesty.)
   If the answer is no, chances are that you can remove the entire fucking chapter without adversely affecting your book.
   Your fucking so-called fucking precious fucking so-called fucking feelings are fucking unimfuckingportant. Fucking take the fucking so-called fucking pain - so that your readers don't have to.
   Profanity in the preceding paragraph was employed to jar complacent writers reading this - the ones who sat straight-faced and said I'm not that writer. My chapters contain stuff.
   (I concocted this blog post after reading a novel in which the plot was relegated to the last ten pages and negated through plot-reversal in the final five. Just so you know.)
   The definition of something important is left to the honest appraisal of each writer. A few points worth considering...

*
 
There is a view that everything in your story must be relevant to your story. No room for dead wood. Taken to extremes, this affects readers who know that is precisely how you always operate. Readers may be herded into thinking that every single item is of significance, comma by fucking comma.
   Result? Even the seemingly-insignificant points raised in your story are automatically flagged as significant. When there really is no dead wood lying around inside your text, will you still leave scope for surprise? Only you can answer that one.

*

Dramatist Anton Chekhov made a statement many take as a commentary on foreshadowing items in storytelling. He was writing about placing the detail of a gun in a tale.

"One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep."

   The comment isn't just about foreshadowing. It's about cutting the story until there's no fat left, then writing it down. Or cutting the fat after being written, prior to publication. (Don't go cutting after publication - let the story go. Write a better one next time.)
   No dead wood. Chekhov feels it's vital to place everything just so. Something important happens in each act of the play. More than that, though. Chekhov indicates that nothing unimportant should happen at any point in the story. His statement has also been written as...

"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

*

Do we go along with that? We have choices to make. Another dramatist, J.B. Priestley, wrote a play called Dangerous Corner. This starts in darkness with the sound of a shot. Priestley's story has often been likened to a radio play unleashed on the stage. I heard it performed on radio, and was left to imagine the darkness of the opening seconds.
   Though I haven't seen the movie adaptation or a staged performance, I'm inclined to think radio may just be the best place for Dangerous Corner. With the introduction of the shot, does a gun feature in proceedings? Yes. I'll leave the plot out, for those with the inclination to experience Priestley's material.
   Priestley gave us the indication of a gun, and followed up with a firearm in act three. Was he taking Chekhov literally, with a wink at the audience? Priestley often winked at the crowd while displaying the straightest of faces.
   Google's mapping service has blurred the face of Priestley's statue in Bradford. J.B. Priestley, Grumpy Old Git? I can't help but think, had Priestley lived to comment on the sight, he'd have expressed a preference to see the background architecture blurred instead.
   It's the addition of a pipe to the statue that renders Priestley into a wrinklier version of Harold Wilson, with less hair. Judge for yourselves. There are images of these two pipe-smokers side-by-side on the internet, should you trudge far enough. Squint at photos of the young Priestley, and you can almost imagine that he is Harold Wilson.
   My diversion into talk of pipe-smoking Yorkshiremen serves no plot-based purpose. A chapter without development in plot may indicate plot is coming along shortly, after the instigation of character-based activity. Occasionally, story is about atmosphere.
   If every single item in your tale is vital, does that turn you into a predictable writer? Make a choice. Are you in the mood to write a mystery? Herrings of a scarlet hue may mislead your audience for a time. In the same breath, those things are vital and trivial. Of no consequence, yet of great consequence.
   Should nothing happen in a chapter? If the nothing in question is a way of delaying an important act, then the nothing in question becomes all about something. You can heighten tension by throwing kitchen sink after kitchen sink at your readers, before you heave a truck packed with kitchen sinks at your audience in the NEXT chapter...
   But it's easier to build tension by leaving the introduction of essential plumbing UNTIL the next chapter. No advice here. Just a reminder that it's all down to choice, in the end.
   If a chapter-divided novel is a collection of short stories flying in loose formation, then yes...something important must happen in each chapter. For every chapter in which nothing important appears to happen, you'd best throw in a chapter which explains why. Chekhov has a point about needless clutter - wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep.
   Be mindful of the importance of needful clutter. Herrings painted scarlet. And, just as important in writing mysteries, don't overlook gold herrings. Diversions from the plot which concealed the plot all along, upon further examination.
   In Five Red Herrings, Dorothy L. Sayers lays on a boatload of misdirection around the death of a painter, knowing most of her non-painting readers will be fooled long enough to keep reading. Artists may give her plot no more than a scathing glance.
   Something must happen in each chapter. Will that something be important to the readers, and not just of interest to the author? Jay Parini offered his novel up for sacrifice on the altar of Gore Vidal's wit...

PARINI: I’m writing a novel in which two characters talk about Kierkegaard for about twenty pages. Can I get away with this?

VIDAL: You can do that, of course. But only if these characters of yours are sitting in a railway car, and the reader knows there is a bomb under the seat.

   A sly dig from Vidal indicating that, should Parini proceed without the bomb, that novel will only have one reader.

*

Decisions, decisions. What do I give time to, as someone who experiences fiction?
   If I pay to see a movie, you have me until the movie ends. This country hick invested time in reaching the vast glowing screen, after all.
   Though if a movie is showing on TV, I'll find something else to do if you can't hold my attention for twenty minutes. At most, I'll waver as long as the half-hour point.
   I tend to give a new TV series about fifteen minutes to convince me. No, I'm not a fan of the idea that episode two is better. Don't let episode two do episode one's job, TV writers. The Sopranos gained and held my attention. I checked out of Lost before that first precious quarter-hour had elapsed.
   Books? If I start a book, I am almost always bound to finish that book - regardless of quality. Here, it is the writerly eye intruding that makes the drudgery of trudgery bearable. For, as a creator of fiction, I often learn much from reading truly shitty wordsmithery.
   The chapter test is all about having forced myself through books with wall-to-wall nothing chapters. Writers inflicted these flaming coals upon my weary feet. I'm sure they'll continue to write The Great (Insert Nationality Here) Novel, believing that which is of utmost importance to the scribbler is of equal importance to the reader.
   Scribbler, beware.
   So I'll raise caution again, for those who missed it. Does something important happen in the chapter? The definition of something important is left to the honest appraisal of each writer. Chapters are short stories flying in loose formation. The looseness of that formation is as much the reader's affair as it is the writer's. Your audience may forgive.
   To write one stray chapter may be regarded as a misfortune. Writing more than one is definitely a sign of carelessness.

Other entries. See also WRITING FICTION. THE KNIFE TEST and WRITING FICTION. THE WOMAN TEST. For a piece on conduct, rather than typing, there's WRITING FICTION. THE CREEPY SEXIST DICK AUTHOR TEST.

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