December 14, 2016

Crafting the Perfect Chapter – It’s Elementary, My Dears

By Crystal Caudill

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 to 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.  
Someone...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? One children’s book has five characters, but only one is the focus of each chapter. 
Wants...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. In the children’s novel George Washington’s Socks, Matt wants to return General Washington’s cape.

But...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.

So...This is the reaction to the conflict. What does the character do? What does he/she think? Do they change their goal? That is what Matt does. He goes from wanting to return General Washington’s cape to retreating to the safety of the boat. What about the supporting characters? How do they respond to the conflict, and how does their response affect the main character?

Then...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.

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?
Crystal Caudill has been writing as a means of survival since she was a child. Story after story lined her private shelves until God did the unthinkable. Called to move beyond her four walls for His glory, Crystal has infiltrated the mysterious world of writers in search of wisdom and truth. Her tactics have included attending the Kentucky Christian Writers and ACFW Conferences; becoming a member of Seekerville, ACFW, Novel.Academy, two critique groups, and a local writing group; and spending countless hours studying top selling authors, writing craft books, websites, and online courses. To pass her a coded message, use one of the following methods:  Morse code is accepted only in the direst of situations.

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