*This is an expanded edition of my guest blog post to Southern Writer’s Magazine on December 14, 2016.
Crafting the Perfect Chapter – It’s Elementary, My Dears
Before becoming a stay-at-home-mom, I taught fifth-grade students to analyze writing. I hadn’t given much thought to applying what I taught to my own writing until I substitute taught a fifth-grade reading class. That day, I discovered a crucial concept for every fiction writer.
Students all over the country are forced summarize every chapter they read by looking for these key things: Somebody… wants… but… so… then…
We, as writers, need to zero in on every chapter we write to make sure we can answer: Somebody… wants…. but…. so… then…
How do we do this? It’s elementary, my dears.
To illustrate this concept, I will use chapter eight of George Washington’s Socks. I will assume most my readers have not had the enjoyment of reading this children’s novel, so I will just give a very brief introduction to the story.
George Washington’s Socks
A mysterious rowboat transports five adventurous kids back in time to the eve of the Battle at Trenton where they experience the American Revolution. Through encounters with Hessian soldiers, revolutionaries, and even George Washington himself, Matthew, Quentin, Hooter, Tony, and Katie watch history unfold before their eyes as they see first-hand, the grim realities of war and the cost of freedom.
– Amazon.com Blurb
Somebody… wants… but… so… then…
Let’s break it down:
Who is the central focus of this chapter? This can be one or two characters if you are splitting your story between points of view, but even if there are multiple points of view, a chapter is generally about one person. Who would students identify as the main character for your chapter?
In George Washington’s Socks there are five focus characters, however, chapter eight focuses solely on the perspective of Matt.
This is the goal of the main character for this chapter only. What is it that the character wants to accomplish in this small timeframe? More often than not it is a small goal that builds into something bigger.
For Matt, his initial goal in the chapter was to return General Washington’s cape.
No story is engaging without conflict, and neither is a chapter. What obstacle does the character face? It can be internal or external in nature, but it needs to be plausible and, if at all possible, unforeseen.
Matt’s challenge comes in the form of a captain who believes Matt is a rebel soldier.
This is the reaction to the conflict. What does the character do? What does he/she think? Do they change their goal? What about the supporting characters? How do they respond to the conflict, and how does their response affect the main character?
Matt changes his goal. He goes from wanting to return General Washington’s cape to retreating to the safety of the boat.
This is where a consequence occurs or an additional problem is added to the plot. There could be a hint to the subplot, or a difficult obstacle the character must face, or it could leave the reader with a cliffhanger. Whichever course you choose, the “then” is used as a hook for the next chapter.
Matt’s chapter doesn’t end with him being forced into battle. His “then” is the fatal injury of the only man who can get Matt home.
Combine all the elements and you get:
Matt wanted to return General Washington’s cape but a Captain thought he was a rebel soldier trying to desert, so Matt tries to return to the boat. Then, as Matt is being forced into battle, the only man who can get Matt and his friends home suffers a fatal injury.
Somebody… wants… but… so… then… is a quick, easy summary that drives to the heart of a chapter. Do each of your chapters contain these elements? Could you summarize them in this way?
Even scarier…. could a fifth-grader?
I challenge you to share one of your chapters in this way, and just so I am being fair, here’s my example from chapter one.
Kessara wants to pay off her grandfather’s debt, but she doesn’t want him to find out she had to save the family name again, so she goes to the cemetery at midnight to retrieve her secret stash of money. Then as she is returning to the carriage she stumbles upon a clandestine meeting between two criminals who spot her.
What do you think? How would you break down one of your chapters?