Much is advised about writing the opening lines of a book and creating a satisfying ending. But what about the huge amount of material – about 50-70,000 words – in between? How does an author arrange their story so as to keep pulling the reader through?
The first stage of the editing process is often a ‘structural edit’ and it deals with this problem.
This is something I struggled with when writing my fourth novel, Golden Stranger, and I will share with you some helpful advice given to me by the commissioning editor at Allen and Unwin, Sarah Brennan.
To begin with – Have a strong central theme and action line. Golden Stranger was about the rescue of maltreated horses, in particular those used in a wild horse race. Sarah advised me to, ‘make clear at the start what the core mission is. Connect everything else to this mission. Every chapter should contribute to this storyline.’
A core mission can come in the form of a burning question. In Golden Stranger, I had three burning questions that linked all the events together:
- Can Shara rescue the golden colt?
- Can she clear her name?
- Can Corey be trusted?
The first burning question was the core mission of the story. The next two were the sub plots. The more these questions crackle and flame, the more tension and excitement. Keep stoking the fire.
Once you pin down the burning question, everything will begin to flow.
Chapter breaks – A chapter should be a unit of meaning, and should clearly take the story one step forward. For example, one conversation might be sufficient if it kicks events off in a new direction, provides a revelation, or brings up a new obstacle. If it doesn’t do those things, keep it as a vignette, just part of a chapter. Sometimes two or three chapters can be seen as constituting one event and can be amalgamated into one.
Chapter endings – Strong chapter endings are vital to keep pulling the reader through. These may come naturally once the chapter division is reviewed. In general, they should have some kind of resonance with a big theme of the book (the burning question), should prompt curiosity or sympathy or some other feeling of connection in the reader. Often they will come at an intense moment. Ideally they will create suspense or a sense of urgency that will make readers eager to turn the page.
Each chapter ending should drive home the effect of the latest gain or setback, so readers are left in no doubt as to what has changed in the course of the chapter. It should hint at the future and propel the story forward.
This is the last few lines of chapter two in Golden Stranger:
Shara briefly considered telling Corey what she had done. He would be okay, he was Elliot’s brother. His dad was the local vet. But she pulled herself up. He was also totally pro-rodeo. He lived and breathed it. So instead, she snorted. ‘Read the paper tomorrow.’ She pushed past him and made a bolt for the river and her waiting friends.
Find the latest great book that had you totally hooked and flick through the chapter endings. You’ll get the idea.
Karen Wood’s author website: www.diamondspirit.net
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