Monday, August 10, 2009

Hinging On Three

“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for” ~ Tom Bodett

Three can be a good number for me, or a bad number. It can be magic or tragic. In the case of my novels, it has been tragic every single time. Always a huge obstacle. The dreaded Chapter Three is what makes or breaks me. I'm not sure if anybody else has struggled with this weird phenomenon, but it seems to me that Chapter Three is where a novel either soars or plummets to a sickening splat.

Chapter Three is often where I either stop reading a book, or keep reading. Chapter One is almost always a good hook. Chapter Two I'm willing to put with a lot if Chapter One was amazing. But Chapter Three - well, if it sucks, let's face it. I'll probably toss the book aside. So what does this mean?

Chapter Three is a HINGE.

I like the quote beneath the picture. It tells me something about humanity and happiness. I'm guessing that most readers want the same general things from a novel that they want out of life. Most readers aren't looking for a depressing, sad tale. Even if they know the story is depressing (you know, like Hamlet depressing), they know they'll probably get some sort of good message out of it, or the journey will take them somewhere rich and meaningful - something that will help them learn more about themselves and life in the process. That's the point of a novel, isn't it? To entertain, to make us feel, sometimes to even change us.

So your first three chapters should probably give the reader three things:

Someone to love - at least one character your reader can relate to and care about

Something to do
- the emergence of a theme or story line showing your reader there's an amazing journey of emotions up ahead

Something to hope for - an often complex complication (um, lots and lots of tension) promising something to root for until the end

So there you go. If you haven't accomplished those by Chapter Three, you most likely have a problem. Chapter Three often falls into the range of chapters or pages an agent or editor will ask for. The first three chapters are often a good snippet to give your beta readers to see if they're interested in the entire book. They could also serve as a good stopping point for a first draft, to see if you want to continue with the plot and characters.

Also, if you don't section your novel into chapters, the first "three chapters" end up in the first 6 - 10 thousand words of the novel, at least from what I've found in my own writing.

Question For The Day: This is just my experience with Chapter Three. Do you feel the same? Or has Chapter Three posed no particular threat or problem to you?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. Yes...very true. And, when I was dating I had this theory of the 'three month wall' for the same reason. Month one was all fun, month two was figuring things out and if things in month three were sagging, I was outta there.

    wierd story to relate here, don't know why I did it, but there you go :)

  2. I love the quote! And to use it as a checklist: brilliant.

    BTW, I am awarding the Superior Scribblers Award to this blog. Thanks for the insights and wit and ideas!

  3. First, I agree 100% with the sentiment. Love, hope and something to do is life neatly summed up. It's brilliant to equate that idea into writing. I'm hoping my own work hooks you long before chapter three though.

    Tess, you meant three minute wall, right? lol

  4. Tess: I LOVE that analogy, too. I think my failed relationship in college was about three months. Glad I passed the three month and three year mark with my hubby!

    Yat-Yee: Thanks for the award. We appreciate your thoughtfulness!

    Charlie: Haha, I think three minute wall could work in a relationship too!

    Oh, I'm sure your work hooks the reader long before chapter three. Most books do for me... but it's when I reach chapter three and it falls into a slump that I put the book down, or stop writing. I've even found that Chapter Four and beyond is still "hooky" and great. That's why Chapter Three is so weird for me, haha. It's just a huge hurdle in my writing.

  5. I think you're right, the third chapter is where you face the biggest risk of losing a reader. Most of us put so much effort into chapter one that it comes out good. Chapter two is the stuff we wanted to put in chapter one, so it has a lot of continuity and builds upon the foundation. Chapter three is where we dare to shift into different waters, adding exposition, characters, and subplots.

  6. Rick: so true about chapter 2 being the stuff we wanted to put in chapter 1 but had to take out for the sake of making chapter 1 punchy and precise.

  7. Chapter three means little more than any other chapter to me, but your (or perhaps someone else's) "three things" interests me.

  8. The "three things" interest me, too. I think those should, in some sense at least, be in the story from the first page onward. In fact, I don't think there should be any sort of segmentation or real structural differences between chapters one, three, twelve or twenty. In all of them, the story should point forward to the ending. Chapter Three isn't where the story begins; it begins on page one, and every page should simply be a continuation of that story. Or at least that's what I'm going for.

  9. Good practical post, Lady!

    A novel has one page with me--tops. I don't even make it through most first chapters. Nothing to do with the specific tone though, as depressing is okay to me. Though often the specific contents of the first page (first paragraph even!) will upset me and I stop reading, but that's a personal issue.

    I've worked in publishing, as an editor and proofreader; in a general reading sense, while editing regularly you kinda learn to spot writing patterns, themes, tone, etc., very early on, assuming the same is carried through a particular work. In my (nonprofessional) fiction reading experience, most first chapters are the best chapters of novels; things typically go downhill from there. Novels are so damn hard to sustain largely because they're so damn long. And most writers seem to revise their first chapters a lot, then grow too tired to do the same with the rest, which is bad because the rest usually needs the most attention.

    I tend to disagree with the popular notion of revising in pieces, like jumping around from part-to-part, the beginning, then the ending, then back to the beginning again, then the middle, and so on. I think often doing read-throughs from page one onward is a better way to work as novels come out more "wholistic" then, and an excess of work will less likely be spent on the beginning or the ending. Normally, readers won't read narratives in pieces, so writers shouldn't write narratives in pieces. Not counting things like notes that are separate from the final works.

    Again, though, this is partly a personal thing, my own way of writing because I focus on flow and wholeness. This method may not work for certain stories, for other writers. Writers must do things their own ways in the end. As long as they finish something, then probably every way is okay.

    I think you're right about where things generally derail while writing: I've probably started more novels than I've finished, yet almost always around page 30 or so, if a story is falling apart and I'm struggling to find where it's going next, I can see it just won't work, and I abandon it. That's around the word count you've cited.

    I always let out an ENORMOUS sigh when I write past the dreaded page 30 because, chances are, I'll finish the novel!

  10. Michelle: Oh, I get it. In books I'm reading, I try to get to page 100 at least. If I get there and still don't want to know how the story ends, I quit reading. If I can't get there at all, I've already quit reading. I don't have critical distance to evaluate my own books that way, darn it.

  11. Rick: Haha about Chapter Two. In the case of my second book, Chapter Two starts with a new POV character, so it's not anything I could put in Chapter One, but I see your point.

    Justus: It's what I've found so far in my writing and reading, which is why I did the post. I wanted to know if I was alone in this view.

    Scott: I think they should be in the story from page one, as well. I was just saying that if they aren't in your story BY Chapter Three then you might have a problem. And I guess what I mean by that, more specifically, is that they should begin on page one, and really be established by Chapter Three.

    Same with the forward movement you're suggesting. I've just found that when I get to Chapter Three, that forward movement either wants to die completely, or go in another direction. It's a spot in the novel I have to watch out for.

    F.P.: Yes, EXACTLY. It's those first 30 pages that can make or break me. It's where things are established for the story, and I think by that point (nearing Chapter Three or Four, usually) one can tell if the story is working or not.

    I like to edit in the fashion you've described - reading through. I edit in layers. So I'll edit the whole novel from beginning to ending for one particular problem (or a set of them), then I'll do it again and again until the novel is tight. I don't like revising or editing in sections. Like you say, it makes the work feel fragmented.

    Although, I do think there's a point each novel reaches where you can edit in fragments because those parts just need tweaking.

  12. Scott: Hah, yeah. If only we could gain the critical distance to evaluate our work that way! Here's to hoping you don't quit Monarch by page 100!

  13. Your post reminded me of a comment by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Godspell) that by Song 3 (the first fifteen or so minutes of a musical) you need an I Want song that will establish the character's goals and motivations in the eyes of the audience. If you don't make those things clear up front, then you'll likely lose your viewers. I think it's a very similar point.

  14. I really mean it--I'm writing so nervously till I hit that 30-page mark, like in a long panic attack. I've discussed this before, how stressful it is. Still can't figure out how to overcome this; I could know exactly where a story's going and have quite extensive notes in front of me, and I still panic I won't make it there inside the actual narrative.

    One thing that helps me a little and might help others: having a short story to work on during. Like if you take a break from penning a before-page-30 novel and completely first draft a really short story, and get that confidence boost at having finished something--you can then go back to the novel not feeling as much anxiety. The confidence boost cancels out the doubt a bit.

  15. This is all very fascinating because I have not encountered the same problem at all. I have way more trouble with the first chapter than chapter three. In fact, in my books (one finished and two sub-finished) it is usually chapter 3 where I feel like the writing is finally hitting it's correct pace and voice. Chapter One is filled with angst. Chapter Two is filled with what Rick says (even though Ch. 1 doesn't seem to benefit from this manipulation). Chapter Three is finally "right". That checklist is great!

  16. One thing I find helpful sometimes is to just write long stretches without thinking about chapter breaks, just so there's a cohesion to the narrative. My first draft of my most recent book had only seven chapters (each over 10,000 words long). I went back later and looked for logical places to put in chapter breaks. This method hopefully avoids structural problems like Chapter Two being all backstory and Chapter Three being where the writing "really comes together." Hopefully, the writing is together from the start!

  17. Dominique: Hey, that's a cool comment about the power of 3. And come to think of it, most of the musicals I know have an "I Want" song within the first three. Sure makes sense.

    F.P.: That's not a bad idea. The only problem is I can take months to write a short story. And so far in my writing career I've only been able to write one thing at a time. *sigh* I really need to branch out.

    Davin: Thanks for stopping by during your busy away-week! I know how much you struggle with Chapter One. I do, as well. When I finally reach Chapter Three I think my brain is getting into the "Oh, this is good" mode, and things go a little awry.

    Scott: That's a great idea. I should try this for the last half of my book to see if it works well for me. The only thing is that I'll have obvious breaks anyway because I switch POVs for each chapter. So it will feel like chapters anyway. Urgh.

  18. My chapters are super short so chapter three is the middle to end of most people's first chapter. But I definitely know what you are talking about. In the first couple chapters things are getting set up but the third chapter is when things are starting to get flowing. I like how you call it a hinge. And all three things do need to be involved. I will look at the spot around most people's third chapter to make sure I am doing these things. Great post :)

  19. Lauren: Yes, you must have some pretty short chapters! This makes me wonder if it's the third "break" in a book where this happens for me, or just the third chapter, or if it's at that 6 - 10 thousand word range. Thanks for stopping by!

  20. I'm usually look forward to Chap 3, when the wheels start really turning. (or falling off).
    It's more like Chap 10 when the initial blush is gone and I ask myself, "now what?"

    I like the three questions, though. I'll have to see if they work.

  21. Hmm, I haven't noticed this in books I read or write. But it's not often I put a book down--it really has to be horrible. And even then sometimes I finish it to see if, just in case, something good is at the end.

    I don't write in chapters either, and most drafts I've written were during NaNoWriMo, so I couldn't stop!

    But, my mind tends to wander after about 30 minutes of any activity. Does this count as a "3" thing?

  22. Andrew: Hey, interesting that you pin it down to Chapter 10. I think every writer is different, and three just happens to be my spot. Some writers and readers are just more patient than others! I'm not one of them.

    Annie: Haha. Well, sure, 30 minutes can count. I'll bet 3 tasks falls in there too...

    You are a patient reader and writer, me thinks.

  23. Ha! For sure I'm out of my desk chair after 3 tasks. :)

  24. Hmmm. You know, I've never had a problem with chapter three. Unless it ends on page 100, which is usually the point where I start having problems if there are going to be any. Great post!

  25. Bonnie: I've heard page 100 is an iffy spot for many. It seems to be a hinge too. So make sure you have it tight!


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