Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chapters in Which Something Happens

My daughter, who is three, is on her way to being the next Neil Gaiman.

Bronwen likes to tell stories. The other day we were driving somewhere, the destination is unimportant, and she asked me if I wanted to hear a story. Always open to the possibility of stealing my children's ideas and using them in a story of my own, I said, "Sure."

She began like she always does: "Okay, here I go." (Because she's learned the hard way that we need to know she has started.)

She goes on for a period of time describing a situation with dragons and knights in shining armor and Peter Pan and dinosaurs before she noticeably runs out of steam. But lack of a sequential, logical plot point is not a deterrent to Bronwen, master of the first draft that she is - oh no, she says "And then something happens" and we're off to the next portion of the story in which Captain Hook saves the day when he turns into a ninja and slays Shredder.

Subject matter is not the only way she is like Gaiman. (Joking. Don't yell at me.) Note the auspicious use of ye olde literary device: And Then Something Happens.

Ah-ha!

Now we get to why Gaiman is a really kick-ass storyteller. He has embraced the Something Happens. Which means he is not a boring storyteller. To tell a good story, stuff has to happen. Whether it's in logical order or believable is beside the point at this moment. With Gaiman, just assume that it does make sense - or, rather, he will make it make sense to you (the key!).

And I knew I was in pretty darn good hands when I picked up Anansi Boys just from the chapter titles. Chapter titles are risky things, as we talked about before with Margaret Atwood - who also gets away with titles - because they can give away too much. But what's interesting about Anansi's chapter titles is that they reassure the reader that something does happen.

A sampling:
Chapter One: Which is Mostly About Names and Family Relationships
Chapter Two: Which is Mostly About the Things that Happen After Funerals
Chapter Three: In Which There is a Family Reunion 

From that tiny bit, I can assume that there is a family dynamic heavily at work in the story and that Point A leads to Point B because Something Happens. The first chapter is telling the reader who the family is, the second chapter takes place at a funeral - and I can assume that a family member has died (Something Happened), and that the family reunion after the funeral will not run smoothly because of the Something that Has Happened which will cause Something Else to Happen. It's all very dramatic.

So here's a possibly interesting way to apply Gaiman's storytelling to our own work, if you're so inclined: title the chapters "In Which __________ Happens." If nothing actually happens in that chapter, then you need to reevaluate what you want that chapter to say...and if it doesn't say anything, I think you've found some pieces to scrap/think heavily about cutting. (And don't forget to delete the chapter titles before you submit your book around - you don't want to give everything away.) Hm, come to think of it, that could be a cool way to help you write a synopsis too....

4 comments:

  1. I use this technique myself in plotting! But I think Neil G., much as I love him, got it from Pooh.

    "Chapter 6: In Which Eeyore Has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents"...

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  2. Hey, that's the art, right? Write it like ya stole it.

    It's been forever since I've read the Pooh stories...better get on that.

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  3. I'm reading Anansi Boys right now, so I know exactly what you're talking about! This is a good point and gives me something to think about when I'm staring at (aka, editing) my story :)

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  4. I've just started reading American Gods - the first long piece of Gaiman's I've ever read.

    This is a great post! And a really handy way of remembering to make sure something happens in my own story. I love chapter titles like that!

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Fellow thieves! Please feel free to let me know what you've taken from this post - or share pertinent information that you don't mind me stealing.