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Write your thriller in chapters: 10 tips for greater productivity

There’s no one way to write a novel. I do, however, have ten suggestions to make it go easier and faster:

1. Outline. Have some idea where you’re going and what the destination might be. It’ll save you time doubling back from dead ends. Believe me, I’ve written myself into cul-de-sacs and it’s a time suck no one can afford. (No, you’re not married to the outline and you don’t have to go OCD with the Roman numeral outline you learned in grade eight. I’m trying to increase your productivity and enhance your creativity, not shackle it.)

2. If you outline, you don’t have to write your story in sequence. With an outline, you already have the beats, the bases you have to touch as you tell your story. If you’re not feeling very inspired one day, no big deal. Focus on the high points of your outline on the days you don’t start off “in the mood.” Bonus benefit: you’ll get all your sex scenes written first.

3. Write each chapter as if it’s a short story. Your novel has a beginning, middle and end. So should your chapters. I often see substandard chapters which finish without the pulls of intrigue, a cliffhanger or a bang. Some writers reason that if they make the larger story interesting, they can afford to have a chapter or two that isn’t compelling. It does sound reasonable. It’s also wrong. Tension has one direction: up. There are way too many great books to read (and a million other things to do) so, for many readers, you bore them, you lose them. Sure, you’ve made this sale, but they won’t be burnt again.

4. For each chapter, identify a purpose. If a chapter has no dramatic purpose, drop it. Too often I see manuscripts where the characters are up and moving around, but to no purpose. (When editing, purposeless activity is called “business” as in “busy-ness.” There’s movement, but nothing’s really happening.  A chapter without purpose signals self-indulgence, a writer who got lost for awhile, not enough editing or an author who insisted on a tangent at the expense of the book.

The other common problem? Too much world-building and not enough character. A writer once described to me in excruciating detail about the far out environment of his book. It was a very ethereal place in space with no points of reference between human readers and the gaseous clouds that were his characters. I had to shut him up. He was driving me crazy with exhaustive, pretty detail. “But what’s the story? How is your reader going to relate to that?” Science fiction is about people first. Fantasy is about people first. Stories are all, at their core, about people and the choices they make. Sift your world-building detail in amongst action and character development. Otherwise, it will be unreadable, confusing or the reader won’t care.

Chapters with purpose are compelling and propelling toward an conclusion the reader wants to discover. (But they also want to be fooled, too. So make them say, “Ah, I bet I know what happens next.” Then find a way to surprise them. Read any of William Goldman’s novels to really get this deep into the marrow.)

5. What are the scenes in your chapter and are they in the right sequence? Are you revealing too much early in the story? Are you being too coy with the reader in later chapters? Does the pace pick up as you reach the climax and solve the novel’s core problem? Is it really a surprise (and logical) when you get to that climax?

6. Are you taking shortcuts in logic or logistics? Somewhere in your book there’s a less favorite scene or something that requires more research that, frankly, you don’t want to do. If your heroine is in Paris and your hero is in New York, they can’t meet in the middle of the Atlantic on a train (unless your novel is set in the future or a past that never was, of course.)

Are you missing a bridge to get you from one event to another? This is a logistics problem. Your FBI investigators are in Virginia at Quantico. The kidnapping is in the Pacific Northwest. Do you need a scene of conflict within the team on the private or military jet to get to the crime scene? You may make that transition in just a single sentence or it might be a chapter, but without some acknowledgement of the travel issue, it will be jarring for the reader to have them materialize in Seattle. Time and space and placement of people in relation to each other is something to trip over if you don’t make the effort to handle it logically.

7. Do your chapters fit together? Suppose you have an entire book that takes place, A to B, sequentially over the course of the hottest August in a century. But there’s that one winter scene you’re slipping in with a flashback. Does this puzzle piece fit in with the tone of your other chapters? If not, is there a reason for it? For instance, if your hero needs a look back at an early Christmas morning for the one time he was happy to give him a clue or change of direction, it fits better than an odd chapter that seems plugged in.

8. Is each chapter satisfying? This is a little different from #3, and a larger, more esoteric editorial question. You’ve written each chapter as a short story. That’s fine and can help you face the challenge of writing an entire novel-length manuscript. Now I’m asking, does each chapter feel full? Is it contributing something more to the larger story arc? When all these short stories are cobbled together, will each contribute to a greater whole than the sum of the parts? Is there a richness in description, character and action that will leave the reader satisfied with the effort overall? Is the core problem big enough to bother with a full-length book? Do you force the reader through several hundred pages only to kill off the protagonist (can be done, but often iffy) or worse, find out said protagonist is a lummox they hate? Too often, authors make their obstacles too small, the villains too stupid, the stakes microscopic and the core problem not nearly big enough. You don’t have to save the world on every outing. Maybe you’re just saving one person, but make us care.

9. Does each chapter’s length make sense? When I say “make sense” here, I mean, do you achieve in the chapter what you need to accomplish at an appropriate pace? Chapters don’t have to have a uniform length. Mary Higgins Clarke’s chapters get progressively  shorter as she goes so it feels like a race to the finish. I find I like short chapters as a reader (and as an editor) because I feel like I’m making progress as I go through, marking up the milestones. Short chapters often feel like a breezy  read. As a writer, however, I find my chapters are longer so they have time and space to wind to their conclusion. However, some writers go so short they aren’t providing enough beats within each chapter. I sometimes see underwritten, choppy chapters where action isn’t happening and characters aren’t developing. When that happens, you don’t have a chapter yet. In that case, you probably have the components for scenes within one chapter.

10. Set a schedule. If you use each suggestion here as a guideline, you also have an estimation for how long it will take you to write your novel based in real time.  Since you’re writing your novel as short stories, progressing at a fairly predictable pace, set an end date for the first draft. Make a schedule to get to that date and stick to it.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll make real progress toward your goals. 

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Filed under: Books, Editing, getting it done, publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses

  1. Sheilagh Lee says:

    this is all great advice Chazz.

  2. […] Write your thriller in chapters: 10 tips for greater productivity (chazzwrites.wordpress.com) […]

  3. acflory says:

    StoryBox [similar to Scrivener] trained me to write in scenes and chapters but…I’m still a pantster so my plots have to evolve from the characters. Some small thing in chapter 3 could well evolve into the key for chapter 54. But I won’t know about that ‘key’ until I write the scene in which it occurs. I couldn’t possibly outline such a plot. 😦

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