9.19.2017

Beginning, Not End

If a “chapter” in a novel was renamed “story unit,” an author’s conception of its construction would be clarified. A story unit implies that the chapter must make forward progress by the time it ends. Judged in this light, where is the best place for a background story?

At the beginning of a new chapter, you have momentum cresting over the previous chapter break. Yet, in terms of a story unit, the beginning is the chapter’s low point. The reader is catching his breath after the previous chapter. Since background material does not drive a story forward as hard as present action, it is best inserted at this point.

The reader does want to find out more about what makes the book’s main characters tick. While she is catching her breath, she’ll enjoy the greater breadth that background material provides. Plus, she knows that you have the rest of the chapter to create another story obstacle that will provide new plot propulsion.

By contrast, back stories don’t function well as endings of chapters. That means you’re back-stroking the paddle just when you want to position the canoe to jump over the chapter break. One horrible mistake occurs when an author doesn’t know where to put a back story. So he sees an action scene to which the back story relates loosely—and dumps it in after the action. That casts all that fine action into the shade of less exciting material.

I’ve even seen back stories about another subject entirely dumped at the end of a chapter. Yet that means you’re telling us that the entire chapter wasn’t really that important, because now you’ve segued onto some other subject as its ending. The reader is left puzzled—and now that chapter break looks like a good excuse to put the book down. That’s because she doesn’t feel any need to turn to the next chapter. You’ve left her unmoored at the end of a story unit.

Exercise: Look for where your back stories are placed within a chapter. In particular, judge them purely in terms of story momentum. Is the background material competing with the present-day story line? Try lifting the back story out of the chapter and judge the momentum now. Do you see where it’s really starting to catch fire? Place the back story before that point.

“A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.”
—Kenneth Tynan

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


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