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YMMV: Start With a Question, End With a Choice

🤷 Question: Tell Me What You Think About Me?...

A lot of what's coming up in this series is home-grown and developed by me over the years. But there's a good amount that is adapted from other sources as well, and today's in one of the adaptational posts. Specifically, this comes from a Lessons From the Screenplay video about act structure in films. Using a five-act model, the video goes through The Avengers as an example of how each act starts with a dramatic question and ends with a character choice. I like it, but I also spend a lot of time thinking about how movies and books are fundamentally different, and while this model works pretty well for film acts, I like it even better for shaping chapters.

Start With a Question, End With a Choice

Something that comes up fairly frequently with new writers is that their chapters cover the ground they need to, but they don't really flow. It feels like it has too much preamble, or maybe it takes too long to wind down. It starts, things happen, and it eventually ends. Sometimes there will be multiple unrelated scenes combined in order to make the requisite word count. What's lacking is a sense of narrative progression. Oh, it contributes to the overall story, but as a standalone unit of storytelling, it has no narrative thrust in and of itself. It is entirely dependent upon what comes before and after. In short, it has no self-contained arc.

More than once I have mentioned this and been met with wide-eyed disbelief that a chapter is supposed to have an arc.

So, that's the first thing. Chapters have arcs. This is not actually controversial at all, but it's not something that necessarily occurs to you to work out intentionally until you've been doing this for a while. You generally think of an arc as happening in the context of an overall story, but it happens at every level of narrative. If you think of the traditional pictographic representation of a story arc, it's depicted as a series of straight lines representing rises and drops in... something or other--it was never properly explained to me. Action? Tension? Look, there's a reason these graphs don't have labels, but it doesn't matter. It's a crude but useful model of how stories work.

We all learned this in grade school, right?

The thing is, in reality, none of those lines are straight. They're all curves, tiny arcs, many of which actually comprise even more tiny arcs underneath them. The arc is a fundamental building block of storytelling for one very simple reason.

Straight lines are boring.

If I can unnecessarily overcomplicate this metaphor, a straight line in a narrative is where a character wants a thing and then goes and gets the thing. And it is dull--thoroughly uninteresting. I was bored even typing that. Stories are driven by conflict and tension, and you don't achieve that by having characters just get what they want. They have to fight for it. They have to overcome setbacks. And that's what an arc is. It is a character trying to get something but having to move away from it before they can move towards it. Movies and novels have big arcs. Sometimes we describe them in terms of 3-act, 4-act, 5-act, or even 8-act structures (or 13-point beat sheets). Because you have to do some more twisting and turning to sustain a longer narrative. But the basic idea is the same--a character has a goal but must take an indirect path to accomplish it. And that model of an arc scales down really cleanly.

For example, in last week's post on flash fiction, I talked about the very most basic structure of an arc: setup, complication, reversal. First we introduce the premise, then we give details that push the audience in one direction, and finally we undermine that with a reversal. Setup: A guy walks into a bar. Complication: ...with a duck on his head. The bartender says "Where'd you get that thing from?" Reversal: "Beats me," says the duck, "it started as a pimple on my butt."

I like using jokes as an example because we all grew up telling dumb jokes and we all intuitively understand the format of them. This is a subject for another post far in the future (read: not next week, probably not the week after that), but I like to model humor as "surprise + absurdity." Again, the M.O. of these kinds of jokes is to point the listener down one path only to reveal that--surprise--we were on a different path all along and--absurdity--the path we're actually on is ridiculous. But if you were to swap out "absurdity" with something like... say... "tragedy," then instead of humor, you have literature.

Consider the six-word short story that is popularly (and perhaps erroneously) attributed to Ernest Hemingway: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." Heartbreaking story, but under the hood it's using the same mechanics. Setup: "For Sale." This is the premise, we're reading a classified ad. Complication: "Baby shoes." People generally like babies and are very defensive of them, so this complication is prompting us to think of something happy, but it's also raising the stakes. Finally our reversal: "Never worn." Oh dear, something very sad has happened. It's only six words, but it contains a full story arc. And, incidentally, if you replaced the reversal with something absurd, it would become a joke. "For sale. Baby shoes. No money down."

So if setup/complication/reversal works at a very small scale and 3-13 acts is working at a very high one, how do we wrangle the arc of a chapter, which should be somewhere in between? Well, I'm glad you asked, hypothetical reader. Or rather, that I asked on your behalf. And you probably already know the answer, because it's the title of this post.

Start with a question. End with a choice.

So let's look at this in practice. I'm not advocating that the first sentence of every chapter end with a question mark, or that they endings should have a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure component. These are, rather, hooks that you can use to tie the events of the chapter to character agency.

If you're not familiar with the term, "agency" is the idea that your characters are making decisions that drive the story. They are active agents in it, not just bystanders who are being acted upon by the plot. Agency is vital if you want your story to be engaging. So, in that respect, the question and the choice are not for the reader, they're for the protagonist of that chapter.

The question, then, is not a literal question but a narrative one. The perspective character has something they're looking for or some goal they want to achieve. Framing this in the setup of your chapter makes them an active agent in it. Now they're driving the plot. Now the reader is engaged, because at the end of the day, all we want out of a story is to watch someone we like struggle but ultimately achieve something that's important to them. Starting the chapter with a question that matters to the character necessarily makes the narrative character-centric. And deciding what that question is going to be from the outset helps keep it character-centric for the duration.

Similarly, ending with a choice puts the onus on the character to direct the action going forward. They have set after a goal during the setup, been stymied to a greater or lesser extent during the complication phase, and then concluded by making some decision about this goal. They've realized they need to try a different tack, they've unexpectedly succeeded, they've succeeded but discovered something even more disastrous, they've given up, whatever. The choice answers the question that was posed at the beginning of the chapter while also setting up the next one.

This also solves the problem of starting a story too early or ending it too late. We've all read that story or chapter where the text goes on for two or three pages before it feels like the narrative really engages. If the author is just info-dumping, then it's really obvious what the problem is. But it's not always that obvious. Sometimes the characters are doing stuff... it just feels like none of it matters. But if you start your chapter with the character consciously engaging with the goal or question that will be at the heart of the chapter, then it's not a problem anymore.

On the flip side, ending once a decision has been made that either resolves or subverts that question gives you that same benefit vis-a-vis where to end. Because we've all read stories that feel like they peter out two-thirds of the way through. Ending with a choice prevents that. Or rather, it helps you--the author--recognize and plan out where the chapter is going to end and not over-shoot it trying to tie things up.

Now, it's worth noting that this does not have to be a big question or even a big decision. It can be as simple as "Where did I put my car keys?" being answered with "This was annoying, I guess I'll buy a key-hook." Not all questions are life-changing. Chapters are about making incremental steps along the path of the larger narrative arc. Remember, the big plot arc is constructed from hundreds of small ones. A chapter arc can be small, and often it should be small. It just needs to be important to the character, move the story forward, and make the chapter into a self-contained narrative.

Because that's the unstated major premise of this model. A chapter should be a satisfying read all on its own. It should have a beginning, a middle, and end. No cliffhangers! That's just lazy storytelling. In fact, I would go a step farther--and I intend to in next week's post--and say that a chapter should be able to stand alone completely. You should be able to pick up a book six months after putting it down and start the next chapter without feeling lost. Someone completely new to the story should be able to pick up a chapter in the middle and, even though they might not know everything that's going on, still get a satisfying narrative experience out of it. As I like to say, context is for the unimaginative.

Quick caveat: this model works for most chapters, but it definitely is not necessary for all of them. Some chapters are going to be doing their own thing. Set-pieces will frequently have an arc that spans multiple chapters that are individually short in order to make the pacing feel faster. Some prologues, especially those in a long-running series, will be nothing but setup and complication. Final chapters are very often used to wrap up loose plot threads, and those will be less of an arc than a coda. Follow your instincts.

In fact, you should feel empowered to follow your instincts even in those dawdling middle chapters. If you end a chapter with a revelation instead of a choice and it feels right, don't change it just to fit this. I have a friend who only uses this when she gets stuck. And that's fine! More than fine, that's great! The whole premise of this series is, once again, that most of this advice won't work for everyone, but you may find parts of it that work for you.

Next week, an extra-spicy take on the evils of scene breaks...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.