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Structuring Novel Chapters, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

image from Winter Town by Stephen Emond

With Winter Town I thought of each chapter as its own mini story, paying close attention to giving each scene a three act structure and changing the values at stake between the start and finish. A common “rule” you’ll read in writing books is that if a scene starts off positive then end it negative, and vice versa. It’s really the value at stake in a scene that gets changed. Positive and negative is just a very broad way of looking at it.

A good example from Winter Town is in chapter 14. This chapter takes place early on in the relationship of Lucy and Evan, and takes place from Lucy’s POV. What I wanted to show here was Lucy’s inner struggle and inability to fully commit to something. She’s always liked Evan, she’s thrilled to be with him, but she’s self destructive and already picking at the relationship. The scene takes place in the evening when Lucy and Evan leave Evan’s house to walk downtown to the movie theater.

I divided the chapter into three main sections; Lucy getting outside and into a more cosmopolitan hustle and bustle, Lucy and Evan discussing small town life, the city, art and school, and then arriving at the theater where Lucy’s tone shifts.

It starts positive; Lucy finds a strong energy in the night, with people all around her, the downtown lights, she holds Evan’s hand, she kisses him, she can barely contain herself. The lights are reflecting on the snow, the streets are decorated, people are all out enjoying themselves, and it’s a romantic scene as Lucy and Evan go out in public as some variation of boyfriend/girlfriend for the first time.

The “second act” plays with the positive and negative. Lucy and Evan talk about a fantasy life in the city, making art. Movies, comics, teaming up and living off art and love in a creative community. This is Lucy’s dream and Evan’s fantasy. For Evan, it isn’t real. He knows he can’t leave his family, he has plans for school. Lucy doesn’t fit snuggly into his future vision.

The third act and “epilogue” of the chapter has Lucy reeling during the movie, emotional and on the verge of tears, while Evan just watches the movie. Lucy decides that Evan can’t appreciate her or art because he doesn’t know pain the way she does. He doesn’t suffer and his life is too clean and neat. The chapter ends on a negative note as the idea is planted in Lucy’s head that she is going to break his heart.

The constant shifting of good and bad, and light and dark, creates a dynamic flow and keeps the reader wondering what will happen next, and never getting too complacent with how things are. As readers, we truly appreciate the happy moments when they come from dark places and we cringe at the dark material that follows the lighter pieces. Beyond all that, it gives you a guide and purpose in your writing. Are things going too good for your character? Too bad? Try flipping the values at stake, sooner rather than later.


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HappyfaceWinter Town     Cleopatra ConfessesBlue is for NightmaresNecromancing the Stone

Writing Teen Novels

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