Saturday, September 18, 2010

CHAPTER BEGINNINGS: Turtle in Paradise (Post #4)

Dear Sleuths,

My intention for today’s post was to write about the way Jennifer Holm incorporates historical details such as references to Shirley Temple and Little Orphan Annie into Turtle in Paradise. Author of six historical novels, including two Newbery Honors, Holm has mastered the fine art of balancing enough detail to set a scene while not overwhelming readers with too much research.

However, we have written a lot about historical fiction over the last few months, and as I flipped back through Turtle in Paradise, something else caught my eye: the way Holm begins each chapter with a short transitional paragraph before launching into action.

Chapters are an interesting element of structure and form in that they exist in all novels, but they warrant minimal discussion in craft books. When chapters do show up in a writing book as a subject, it’s usually in reference to chapter endings. Here’s an example from the book Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham:
You end chapters at places which will hook readers. You do not devise your chapters to provide convenient blank spaces in between them for purposes of transition. (p. 118)
Multiple writing experts reiterated the fact that chapters should not end when characters go to sleep! A hook must be in place at the end of a chapter to propel readers forward. (For more about suspense and chapter endings, refer to Allyson’s April post about Blackbringer by Laini Taylor.)

But what about those chapter beginnings? What is their function? Is it the same as the opening of the book? Allyson’s last post on the narrative hook analyzed how the first chapter of Turtle in Paradise hooks readers with the Four Ws (Who is the story about, where is it set, when does it take place, and what is going on?). Jessica Page Morrell, author of Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing, has a slightly different take on beginnings:
All beginnings matter. Stories, scenes, and chapters cannot simply commence; they must create a tingle in the reader, pique curiosity, and thrust the story and readers ahead with potency and punch. (p. 39)
The chapter openings in Turtle in Paradise both pique the reader’s curiosity and propel them forward. Let’s take a look at an example from chapter eight.
Maybe it’s because it’s only ever been Mama and me, but I don’t understand what’s so wonderful about having a big family. Someone’s always fighting, or not talking to someone else, or scrounging around trying to borrow money. Far as I can tell, relations are nothing but trouble. (p. 72)
What are the elements at work in this paragraph?

1.     Character development. The first thing that strikes me about this paragraph is how much it reveals about character. It gives me a clear sense of how Turtle feels about living in close quarters with her extended family.

2.     Voice. Here is another example of narrative voice in action, complete with attitude, opinion, and patterns of speech (“Far as I can tell…”).

3.     Pacing. The paragraph provides a moment of pause, a break between the action that wrapped up in the previous chapter and the action that’s about to start.

4.     Creating questions. Turtle’s attitude makes me wonder why she feels this way. What’s happening with her family? What kind of trouble are we in for?

And so I keep on reading, quickly transitioning from Turtle’s thoughts to the action taking place in this chapter. My curiosity is piqued, and off Turtle and I go.

All but two of the chapters in Turtle in Paradise begin in similar ways. And what’s really neat, if you’ll forgive the term, is the way I as a reader start to feel the rhythm and style of the story. After a while, I can’t wait to hear Turtle’s latest thoughts, such as this one from chapter thirteen:
In my opinion, the fellas who make Hollywood pictures are really just salesmen. Instead of peddling girdles, they sell thrills and chills, and folks eat them up. Not me, though. I’m no sucker. I know there’s no such thing as giant apes climbing skyscrapers or mummies walking out of tombs. But just try telling that to the boys. (p. 123)
Another revealing opinion. Another great transition.

I want to return to the question of chapter endings and the hook or question that propels the reader forward. Some books, such as the Goosebumps series or the more recent 39 Clues series, end chapters with big cliffhangers. Readers flip the page, dying to know who’s behind the door or what happened when the lights went out.

But some books don’t have big cliffhanger chapter endings. Books such as The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate tend to be more episodic, keeping action contained within chapters. On the scale between Goosebumps and Calpurnia Tate, Turtle in Paradise probably falls toward the middle: sometimes the action ends with the chapter, and sometimes the chapter ends without resolving the conflict, leaving the reader to wonder what happens next.

When chapters do end with resolution (the cat is banished, Slow Poke pays Turtle), then the next chapter opening absolutely must act as a hook to pull the reader into a new scene and new set of action, as happens in Turtle in Paradise.

StorySleuths Tip #95: A strong chapter opening is so much more than a simple point of transition: it can reveal character, develop voice and, like a hook at the end of a chapter, propel the reader forward.