Monday, November 7, 2011

Tying the pieces of a chapter together

Over this weekend I was struggling with a chapter of my novel - struggling in part because I haven't worked on it for several months, but also because it was one of those chapters that has two main sections. The point-of-view character interacts with a bunch of people in one location, and then for the second half of the chapter, goes to a different location and interacts with a totally different group of people. It's really hard to make a chapter like that seem like it's not just "one thing and then the other." It can be even harder when the sequence gets longer.

You have to tie them all together.

There is, of course, one really good way to have a sequence of events make sense. If one event causes the next, you're not likely to have trouble. I had Nekantor picking out a bodyguard with the help of his brother and his cousin in the first half of the scene, which allowed him to go safely to the next location in the chapter. But the bodyguard doesn't have anything to do with the fact that he's interviewing with the Eminence. She can't - she's irrelevant except as the means for him to get there. So he was coming out of his interview having accomplished the things he needed to accomplish, but the chapter was feeling like two floating scenes instead of a chapter.

I found the link somewhere else.

One of the things that comes up in the bodyguard interview is the question of betting. Members of the soldier/officer caste enjoy risk and the sense of courage, and betting lets them engage in that in addition to their natural duties. So while the three noble boys are interviewing bodyguard candidates, there's a (seemingly) random thread about betting running through the whole scene. In the end, Nekantor realizes that betting is one of the caste's weaknesses, and decides to use that to help make his decision of which bodyguard to pick. Then, later, I'd gotten to the end of the interview and he and his father were arguing with one another on the way home... and it hit me. Nekantor has just learned something about betting, so he can make a betting comment to his father [roughly, No matter what you say, I bet X amount he's going to vote for me.]. It might seem frivolous, but it works for a couple of reasons - one, because I'm picking up something at the end of the chapter that I was working with at the beginning, and two, because it demonstrates that the events at the beginning of the chapter have changed the way Nekantor thinks about things. He's not just "doing two things" in this chapter, but he's learned something that he can now carry forward (and with this offhand comment he's just demonstrated that he will do so).

All of a sudden I had a smile on my face. I also knew that I had a better title for the chapter. I have written before about the usefulness of chapter titles (here). I find they help me express what I think the thematic content of the chapter is - and they also help readers see which elements are important in the chapter. Before I had managed to find this linking element between the two halves of the chapter, I'd named it after the person with whom Nekantor has his interview in the second half (making the first half seem peripheral or less relevant). Once I'd figured out that the betting was the linking factor, I decided to call it "A Better Bet."

It's not always this hard to tie the pieces of a chapter or story sequence together. I've had plenty of chapters that title themselves, like "Master and Lady" where my servant character got closer and closer to seeing the true nature of the conflict between his mistress and her husband (over several different scenes). But there are times when you won't find the link between the smaller pieces of your chapter in the main driving content of each of the scenes. My primary point here is to say that you can look out for smaller repeating elements - for in my case, it was soldiers betting on a competition between the young noble boys in one section, and a young noble boy betting on that same competition in the second section. You'd be surprised what a difference it makes to the sense of cohesion and continuity within the story.

It's something to think about.