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#37: Chapter Beginnings (and Transitions)
Meg Howrey, Torrey Peters, S.A. Cosby, Victor LaValle, Julia May Jonas, Sam Lipsyte, Tom Robbins, Ann Hood.
Happy New Year! Now that I’m back in Arizona from Michigan, I’m making my way through the final week of my holiday break and trying my best to build a head of steam writing-wise before the semester begins. So far so good! The new year seems to have brought me some new perspective, as it should, and it feels like I’m making progress again. One of the macro things I’m trying to figure out in this stage of the novel rewrite is the chaptering, including whether each chapter should be restricted to one POV or if I’d rather organize the material differently. Either approach requires other accommodations to be made, which has me considering approaches to chapter beginnings and transitions. This month’s craft essay comes out of that thinking, and I hope it’ll be useful to you if and when you’re in the same spot.
As always, I hope your writing is going well, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Be safe, be kind, and have fun with your reading and writing!
What I’m Reading:
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas. As a professor, I’m not always drawn to campus novels—who wants to read about their own job?—but this one was a blast. Narrated by a mid-career writing professor whose husband is in the process of being drummed out of the university for a series of pre-#MeToo affairs with his students, it’s a smart and surprising novel about marriage, desires frustrated and desired fulfilled, the vexations (and pleasures) of academia and writing: “For our lives were, as writers, essentially little by nature. Writers have to lead little lives, otherwise you can't find time for writing.”
No One Left to Come Looking For You by Sam Lipsyte. Very few writers are as funny as Lipsyte, and his latest is one of my favorites of his. Narrated by Jack Shit, singer of the post-punk band The Shits, it begins as a search for a stolen bass guitar before becoming a murder mystery and then much else. There’s a kind of book I love that I think of as “scumbag lit,” and this is a great example of the form.
They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howrey. I devoured Howrey’s previous novel The Wanderers, about a trio of astronauts preparing for a manned mission to Mars, and it’s become one of the books that’s stuck with me the most over the past few years. They’re Going to Love You is set in an entirely different world—that of a family of professional ballet dancers and choreographers—but is just as unforgettable. A great novel about the rifts between parents and children, born of ambition and pride and the more stubborn kinds of love: “All this wasted time. For nothing. For ego. Because nobody could get exactly what they wanted. Because nobody knew how to stop themselves from being themselves.”
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. This was one of my favorite books of my early 20s, as formative a read as anything else from this era. I reread it off and on over the last month or two and found all of its pleasures thankfully intact. It’s a wild book, shaggy and weird and horny and always full of life, like no other novel I know, including Robbins’s other books. Among other things, it’s a good guide on how to live forever: “Breathe properly. Stay curious. And eat your beets.”
#37: Chapter Beginnings (And Transitions)
For me, my chaptering strategy is one of the things that takes me the longest to figure out, novel after novel. How long should the chapters be? How many storylines or points of view can be contained in one chapter? Part of this slowness is simply that I don’t always draft linearly. One inevitable side effect of doing this is that I might not make great transitions early on, or even know exactly what the ideal structure of the book is until I’ve finished writing at least one version of it. In my case, adjusting chapter lengths and fixing/adding transitions in revision is a large part of what brings new energy to the next draft, or, in Refuse to Be Done terms, my big second draft rewrite.
My chapter beginnings—which are by necessity also transitions between the material of the previous chapter and the next one—tend to be heavily revised/rewritten again in later drafts as well. And why not? They’re among the most important parts of a novel: your chaptering choices and the transitions between chapters are in large part responsible for establishing the relationship between story and structure, as well as communicating that relationship to the reader. (A novel that can’t communicate this is going to have to have a lot of other pleasures to make up for the lack.)
Most of us have been taught (or have studied on our own) how good story openings or novel openings can work, and most of the tactics that work there work for chapter openings too. In her essay on the topic from The Writer’s Notebook II, Ann Hood identifies a number of workable strategies: character introduction (Melville’s “Call me Ishmael”), the “once upon a time” invite of an “old saw,” character description, setting, in media res, an intriguing fact, a truism or philosophical idea, dialogue, the overture, and the jolt of an “otherworld,” as in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. You might use any of these at any time in a novel—but after Chapter 1, they’ll no longer function exactly the same way, because the reader will be coming to them not from the blank void of not-reading your book but from the final material of the chapter they just finished.
(A side note: even in a novel with alternating storylines, the transitions are between chapters, not within storylines. So if your novel is an ABAB braid, the transitions, as your reader experiences them, will never be between A and A chapters, but always between A and B ones. They’re handoffs, not continuations.)
Every time I ask the reader to move on to a new chapter, I have to accomplish at least two things on their behalf: reset and reorient the reader to any changes of point of view, time, and place; and then generate enough new interest and excitement to keep them reading. That’s good enough, but what’s even better is when the first material of the new chapter can be enlivened by the last material of the prior one, or vice versa—how can the opening of the new chapter recast the previous one?
To my mind, most of the potential impact here comes from clever use of contrast: the bigger the difference in the emotion or sensibility of the new chapter from the last one, the more interest and energy. (Conversely, a chapter that the reader immediately recognizes as more of the same might be a place the book gets put down.)
One of the most common kinds of contrast is a shift in time and place—or into backstory. For example: forty pages into Meg Howrey’s They’re Going to Love You, we transition from the chapter before (which ends on the narrator needing to make a decision to tell her mother about her estranged father’s impending death) into a remembrance of being at her father and his partner James’s house in New York City, during the early advance of the AIDs crisis:
Bank Street. Easter 1985.
The sickness killing gay men is attached to more names and acronyms now. It’s not a cancer, it’s a virus. You get it from blood and fluids, but not everyone agrees on which fluids and how. Before I came to Bank Street last summer, my grandmother told me I shouldn’t go in swimming pools while I was in New York and to line the toilet with paper at Bank Street when I had to sit down. Isabel got pretty angry about this, and told my grandmother that AIDS wasn’t polio. “It doesn’t hurt to be careful,” my grandmother said, and the subject was dropped. I don’t consider her or my mother qualified to speak about the lives of gay men. I know they once both lived in New York, but we’re all in a suburb of Dayton now and I’ve never seen anyone with Kaposi’s sarcoma here. I’ve also never seen men in Ohio holding hands or calling each other “honey” or “sweetheart” in public.
My mother asks me if I have concerns and I say no. I can’t lose Bank Street.
There’s a way to open this chapter without the explicit space/time markers—Howrey could have omitted “Bank Street. Easter 1985” if she chose—but then the reader would have to figure out from the context of the material in the second paragraph that this isn’t the present day. The two two-word sentence fragments that open the chapter efficiently save the reader that trouble, allowing them to focus on the new time and place they’re being dropped into, instead of wondering where they are. (The difference between the present storyline’s concerns and the problems of this past moment provide the necessary contrast.)
The two things the reader almost always needs to know at the beginning of a new scene, to make sense of not just the plot but the emotional cause and effect of the story: where are we now and how long has it been since the last scene? Efficiently delivering that information is one of the simplest and easiest transitions to pull off, and—again, especially if you drafted nonlinearly—is often one of the things I find missing in early drafts.
Not all of the grounding has to happen in the novel’s body, of course: in Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby, for instance, each chapter title comes with a subheading orienting the reader in time relative to the pregnancy at the book’s center: One month before conception, eight years before conception, six weeks after conception, eight years after conception, seven weeks after conception. The novel is a braid but the pieces aren’t exact—you don’t return to the present in the exact place you left it—and so the subheadings do some of the orienting that the text would otherwise have to do.
What’s the benefit of this? It perhaps frees Peters to use other kinds of transitions instead and to create starker contrasts in tone. Chapter Three of Detransition, Baby ends with Katrina, a straight divorcee who has gotten pregnant by Ames, a secretly detransitioned trans woman then named Amy, asking a leading question: “During your time, uh, in the queer world, was it common for people to raise children in a family that is—What do you call it? Something like a triad?”
Chapter Four is subtitled eight years before conception, begins with what, in cinema, would be a jump cut to Amy in the middle of a sex scene with Reese, the potential third partner in this “triad” Katrina was beginning to imagine:
The poppers hit. Purple jellyfish expanded and pulsated across the backs of Amy’s eyelids. She had just enough time to get her mouth back on Reese’s soft cock before her constant interior monologue, that complicated apparatus that processed all the raw signals from her body into a tolerable meaning, for the first time in her life, cut out. Some critical component of consciousness withdrew like the needle lifted from a still-spinning record. No words. No thought. Just raw, unprocessed, open fire hydrants of data that rushed in from Amy’s senses. Time became a slippery fish among it.
The contrasts here are numerous: Ames appearing as Amy, sex and drugs instead of rational discussions about possible parenting arrangements. The change in tone and subject (as well as the promise of this particular scene—who isn’t intrigued by a sex scene?) make you want to keep going—and in this case, having to do the time and place grounding in the paragraph above would almost certainly diminish the effect.
Another kind of transition that can ease the reader from one chapter into the next works something like a match cut in cinema: an element from the chapter that’s ending crosses over the next, where it appears in a new context. (In literature, it’s perhaps a kind of rhyme.) For instance, at the end of Chapter 16 of S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland, Beauregard throws a bottle of beer in anger and grief:
Beauregard hurled the bottle to the floor. It shattered. Shards of glass flew across the kitchen. The beer followed the uneven curve of the floor and pooled under the table.
Chapter 17 begins:
Ronnie pulled into Jenny’s apartment complex with the radio blaring and an empty pint bottle of Jack on the floor. The smile on his face became wider the closer he got to her door.
It’s a simple thing! But the broken bottle of beer becomes an empty bottle of Jack, as Beauregard’s high emotion is replaced by Ronnie’s smug smile. Cosby has swapped POVs and used the empty bottles to help us bridge the gap. There’s a good bit of wit and play in the move, and that makes me want to keep reading too.
This is also a good example of emotional contrast, which is as important as anything else. If a chapter ends in sadness, there’s new energy in beginning the next one in joy or play.
So many smash cuts in movies move from violence to food prep (or from sex to eating) for exactly this reason: the same motions or sounds or sensations in two different contexts come off as funny or clever or gross. Swapping the horror of violence for a slapstick of cooking gets our attention again. As writers, we should never forget that catching and recatching the reader’s attention is half the game. We cannot keep giving the reader the same emotion over and over and expect them to stay enthralled. Just like a standup comedian telling a hilarious joke right before the most crushingly sad part of their set, we want to keep the reader’s emotions on their toes: contrast makes the feelings more deeply felt.
More often than not, the bigger the gap between where you leave the reader at the end of one chapter and where you place them when you begin the next, the more dynamic your book will seem to the reader.
Something to keep in mind: the shorter your chapters are, the more frequently you have to pull off these transitions. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to have short chapters! Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, for instance, is 400 pages long with 103 chapters, which means many of them are very short, some just a page or two long. Because of this, the novel’s a fast read despite its length, and LaValle is constantly finding ways to keep you starting one more chapter. One good thing about short chapters is that you’ve created less drag along the way: if the reader’s only been in a scene for three pages, maybe they’re more likely to be game for another one. But what you potentially gain in the constantly renewed energy of fresh chapters potentially costs you in sustained attention and development. (This isn’t a problem with The Changeling, which means it’s worth studying that book’s success as a model.)
Okay! Let’s put some of the into practice. Your exercise this month is to revise and rewrite the end and beginning of two adjacent chapters (or scenes) in your work-in-progress, aiming to accomplish a few things:
Successfully reground the reader in the new chapter’s time and space and point of view. Where are we now, in relation to the last chapter?
Offer the reader a compelling enough hook to keep them writing, using any of the tactics you might use at the beginning of a story or novel. Remember that over the course of a novel especially (but even in a short story or essay) that variety is your friend: the more different kinds of chapter openings you use, the more effective each one might be.
Create some kind of interesting contrast between the chapter ending and the chapter beginning: a change in tone, activity, mood, or emotion works well. Changes in POV and time and place do too.
Consider the literary equivalent of cinematic moves like the smash cut and the match cut: how can you repeat or rhyme or replace the images and actions of the chapter before to fulfill or subvert the reader’s expectations of what should come next?
Good luck! I’ll see you next month!
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed (a New York Times Notable book) was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.