October 16, 2019: Class Notes, Creative Writing and Memoir

How to write chapters: Create a compelling Chapter 3

This week we looked at how to write a chapter 3. For memoir students, especially those who are writing historical fiction, most of the following material should be useful. Even if you are writing straight memoir, you should find this material helpful in keeping your reader focused.

Thank you to  https://www.nownovel.com/blog/writing-book-chapter-3/ for this material.

What should a third chapter do?

While there are no exact ‘shoulds’, there are different functions great authors’ third chapters often fulfill.

  1. Filling in characters’ histories and backstories. Once you’ve introduced the main setting or scenario of your story, your third chapter might share how your characters came to this point in their lives. For example, in Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez leaps back in time to when Dr Juvenal Urbino (who dies in the first chapter) was a 28-year-old in love.
  2. Creating new tensions or challenges. Often third chapters describe characters’ new challenges and trials. Margaret Atwood does this well in the third chapter of her novel The Blind Assassin, where a character must handle the discomfort of handing out a university award left in honour of her late sister who took her own life.
  3. Switching to a new POV. Switching to another character’s point of view is another way to develop Chapter 3. In David Mitchell’s fantasy/sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas, a character who is sent letters in the previous chapter becomes the POV character.
  4. Developing further setbacks or complications. What could happen to derail your character’s plans or start new chains of events?

Some of the core ways you can build or sustain intrigue and interest in Chapter 3 are by changing one of the ‘5 W’s’ – who, what, why, where and when.

Let’s explore each of these ways you could develop your third chapter further:

1. Share relevant details from main characters’ histories   If the beginning chapters of your story throw your reader into action, Chapter 3 is a good opportunity to go back to origins. You could show the formative experiences that made your characters who they are today.

(Gabriel Garcia Marquez does this expertly in Love in the Time of Cholera. Go to URL above for more details)

This character history is relevant to the story so far, showing:

  • The kind of man the Dr’s widow, Fermina Daza, fell in love with and married: A confident, respected man of learning and action
  • How the Dr’s personality and achievements contrast with Florentino’s own. Florentino, loving Fermina throughout the years of her marriage, is by contrast more neurotic, a dreamer, a romantic, less a man of practicality and science. He is an impractical lover and idealist. Marquez shows how different he is to the man Fermina chose, between chapters 2 and 3

Thus Marquez develops a secondary character to show the complexity of love. He shows how the light, practical kind of love and the obsessive, all-consuming kind both have their problems, and comforts, too.  Indeed, further on in the first page of Chapter 3 Marquez writes of the young Dr Urbino’s choice of Fermina:

‘He liked to say that this love was the result of a clinical error. He himself could not believe that it had happened, least of all at that time in his life when all his reserves of passion were concentrated on the destiny of his city…’ (p. 105)

Thus the third chapter deepens the complexity of Marquez’s characters, showing us the crucial ways they differ from each other.

Sometimes a novel is like a train: the first chapter is a comfortable seat in an attractive carriage, and the narrative speeds up. Jane Smiley

2. Create new tensions or challenges  After you’ve introduced your story scenario in chapters one and two, your third chapter is an opportunity to create new tensions. What could go wrong, or simply test main characters’ courage or affect their emotions?

Margaret Atwood creates an effective third chapter in The Blind Assassin that does exactly this. In the first two chapters of the book we learn that the main character Iris’ sister killed herself by driving off a bridge. This is of course already an extremely difficult situation. Yet in the third chapter, Atwood explores the aftershocks, how Iris has to deal with further trouble:

Atwood thus uses the events unfolding surrounding Iris’ sister’s death to show the tensions and hostilities in her main character’s other familial relationships. Family betrayals and hostilities play a big part in Laura’s path, as Atwood later reveals.

Thus these tensions are relevant to the preceding, and continuing, story.

We see how (from Iris’ viewpoint) the sister-in-law uses the painful situation to make herself look generous. We see how callous this feels to Iris, who is called to speak publicly about her sister at a difficult time.  (For more details go to https://www.nownovel.com/blog/writing-book-chapter-3/)

The third chapter thus develops existing hostilities and tensions, slowly unpacking more of the issues.

Another way to write an interesting third chapter is to switch to a new viewpoint:

3. Switch to a new viewpoint character  After chapters one and two, you’ll likely have introduced your story’s main players. This is a good opportunity to bring in a new character, one who develops your premise further or takes your story to new, intriguing settings.

David Mitchell handles a switch like this well in his epic adventure, Cloud Atlas.  In the second chapter of the book, a young music composer, Robert Frobisher, writes letters to a mysterious friend, addressed by his surname as ‘Dear Sexsmith.’

Frobisher describes his life living with an elderly, respected composer who is going blind, for whom he notates music. The next chapter opens with a switch to Sexsmith’s point of view. It opens thus: ‘Rufus Sixsmith leans over the balcony and estimates his body’s velocity when it hits the sidewalk and lays his dilemmas to rest. A telephone rings in the unlit room. Sixsmith dares not answer.’ (p. 89)

Immediately, Mitchell has taken the character from being the secondary recipient of letters to a main character.

What’s more, he’s seemingly in a tense, dangerous situation. Sixsmith not daring to answer the phone, coupled with his thinking about whether he would die if he were to jump, suggests he’s in grave personal danger.

This switch in pace and focus creates immediate suspense, filling us with questions. Who really is Sixsmith? Why is his life so full of tension? How does this relate to the chapter that came before?

When changing viewpoint character from chapter two to three, ask:

  • How is this character relevant to the preceding chapters? What new perspective or understanding does their viewpoint contribute? In the case of Cloud Atlas, we only learn much later how Sixsmith, Frobisher and others are linked. Yet the link is there.
  • Is there enough continuity for the reader to carry on in the story without being completely confused? You could keep the same setting, or else make reference to a shared scene or event (for example two different characters witness the same accident)

Books are not like albums where you can simply download and enjoy your favorite chapter and ignore the rest. Karin Slaughter

4. Develop further setbacks or complications  In learning how to write a third chapter, you notice how many third chapters involve setbacks or complications. Closing some doors for your characters means others can open.

In The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt opens her third chapter with her main character Theo’s fears from the previous chapter: He’s just been suspended from school:

‘I like to think of myself as a perceptive person (as I suppose we all do) and in setting all this down, it’s tempting to pencil a shadow gliding in overhead. But I was blind and deaf to the future; my single, crushing, worry was the meeting at school.’ (p. 14)

Yet by the end of the third chapter we have foreshadowing that there is worse to come. (A bomb blast at a museum that claims his mother’s life.)

 Go to https://www.nownovel.com/blog/writing-book-chapter-3/ ) for more detail

Thus one of the main tensions in Chapter 3, Theo’s fear and frustration surrounding school, is interrupted by a bigger setback – the loss of his mother in a blast at the museum.

Your characters’ setbacks might not be anything as life-altering or devastating as this. Yet the third chapter is a good point to introduce new hurdles that either defer earlier ones or dwarf them by comparison.

Exploring characters’ backstories that explain their choices or dilemmas, creating new tensions, setbacks or complications, and changing POV are just some of the ways you can keep your story intriguing and full of enticing unknowns.

Assignment: Let’s keep writing. Bring a selection of your work for this week to read. Certainly, if you are on roll, write lots of pages. But choose three riveting pages…think the first three or the last three of chapter 3 for our next class.

Thanks to the writers at https://www.nownovel.com/blog/writing-book-chapter-3/ They will be an important site for you to bookmark.

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