Mar 17 2010

Chapter Checklist

Here are twenty sets of questions to help you check your writing.

1.  Is the story easy to read through? Will readers understand what is happening as they read through it for the first time?

2.  At the end of each chapter, does the audience want to keep reading? For example, perhaps you make an exciting revelation, leave a character in danger, leave a character on the verge of doing or learning something interesting, etc.

3.  Do the characters have high-stakes, urgent goals? If not, check the pacing.  When little is at stake, the plot tends to drag.

4. Does each paragraph develop a character or advance the plot? If not, rewrite or shorten or remove as necessary.  One common offender here is unnecessary dialogue, such as niceties.

5.  Does the plot challenge the protagonists? Is there doubt they will succeed?  If the plot is too easy, you could make the antagonists tougher, make side-characters less supportive of the protagonists, make the protagonists less powerful, etc.

6.  Do the characters’ decisions have consequences? If the character makes a mistake and nothing comes of it, it could probably be removed from the story.  (Why might nothing come of a mistake?  Perhaps a character that could hold the offender accountable lets it go too easily).

7.  Do the characters’ failures have consequences? For example, if the villain beats the heroes, don’t just let them go. Each failure should raise further obstacles.

8.  Are any of the conversations purely cooperative/friendly? If so, making the conversation more adversarial may make the story more interesting.  If a police officer interviews a hotel manager and gets nothing but helpful responses, it’s probably not too interesting.  Make the protagonist work for his information!  Maybe the manager wants to help, but he also has to worry about protecting his customers’ privacy.  Overcoming obstacles is usually more exciting and gripping than walking through unopposed.  Also, it gives your protagonist chances to impress readers.

9.  Do the characters have fitting motivations for their actions? If there is a discrepancy between how a character acts in this chapter and how he has previously been shown to act, is there an in-story explanation?

10.  Does an otherwise friendly character withhold important information from the point-of-view character? (I’m looking at youCryptic Mentors).  If so, is there a good in-story reason?

11.  Does the point-of-view (POV) character  ever withhold relevant information from the readers? If so, why?

12.  Do we learn something new and interesting about an important character? This isn’t necessary every chapter, but in general you should keep developing your most important characters.

13. Does each character contribute to each scene he’s in? If not, could you give him more a distinct role or cut him out?

14.  In dialogue, do the characters have distinct voices? Ideally, the characters sound sufficiently different that readers could generally tell who’s saying what even if you removed the dialogue tags.  If playing around with the voices is too hard, you could vary the character’s personalities or roles.

15.  Does your dialogue use nonverbals? Some examples include body language, scenery, props, environment/weather, narration, bystanders, the passage of time, etc.  Just because characters are talking doesn’t mean that the lines of the characters are the only bullets in your clip.

16.  Does the chapter, as much as possible, show and imply rather than tell? For example, instead of saying that John is the most popular guy in school, you could show him mobbed by friends and ladies at lunch or show people begging for him to sign their yearbooks or whatever. (Showing is usually more dramatic and unique).

17.  Is the plot coherent? Does it build on what has been happening for the last few chapters?  For example, if there are several POVs, is there ample overlap between each POV’s story?

18.  Info-dumping: does your story overuse dialogue and/or exposition to drown readers in exposition? This can usually be solved by showing more and telling less, and focusing on which background details are most important to understanding what is happening.

19.  Does the plot get bogged down in backstory? As with background information, I would recommend only giving us as much backstory as we need to understand what is happening in the here-and-now of the story.   If what is happening now is less important than what happened then, you’re telling the wrong story.

20.  Please proofread!

11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Chapter Checklist”

  1. B. Macon 17 Mar 2010 at 12:00 am

    Thanks to A1Writer for suggesting this article. If you’d like to suggest one of your own, I would really appreciate that!

  2. M.D.on 05 Jul 2012 at 3:21 am

    I am writing a novel, and I am wondering what would be a decent length for a chapter? The novel is generally aimed at young adults and teens.

  3. B. McKenzieon 05 Jul 2012 at 11:58 am

    I’m not very familiar with young adult novels, but I think they usually have approximately 20-30 chapters and up to 90,000 words for works which would require more setup and premise-building (fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal) and 70,000 words for everything else. 2000-4000 words strikes me as likely to not raise any eyebrows, but it might be worth going longer or shorter based on the needs of the scene.

  4. M.D.on 05 Jul 2012 at 12:55 pm

    Okay. Thanks a lot. It is going to be fantasy/sci-fi project, and 2,000-4,000 sounds about right.

  5. Celofanon 16 Feb 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Excuse me, I was wondering… How long should a first chapter be? I was told it should be around 1500 words (min), but mine has 1050 words. I have checked it and fixed things here and there, but honestly I feel I’d slow things down if I added any other thing. The scene itself is short, though I feel it introduces the main character pretty well. Do you have any suggestions?

  6. B. McKenzieon 17 Feb 2013 at 12:14 am

    “I was told it should be around 1500 words (min), but mine has 1050 words.” I’ve never heard of a manuscript getting rejected over chapter length.* If the chapter is sufficiently interesting, I’d say the chapter length is completely irrelevant. Hypothetically, let’s say I were the editor reading your manuscript and I felt like the one thing the chapters were too short. That would take very, very little time to fix, which means that it almost certainly will not pose a serious obstacle to getting published. In contrast, manuscript length is much more important. Your manuscript really has to be extraordinary to survive if it’s 20%+ over or under the publisher’s usual range (usually something like 80,000-100,000 words), but chapter length does not create similar problems.

    *EXCEPTION: If you’re switching between multiple point-of-view characters at each chapter, then there might be a harder-to-fix issue about how much time you’re spending with each POV. I might pass on a manuscript if I felt like the story were switching too quickly (e.g. switching out before giving the character any chance to get interesting) or perhaps if the story were switching too slowly.

  7. Celofanon 17 Feb 2013 at 10:35 am

    Thank you very much for replying. I was really concerned about chapter length because mines tend to vary a bit too much.
    Would this be OK?
    Chap 1= Alice is introduced, and her personality is shown.
    Chap 2= Alice interacts with her family and talks about the events I will cover in Chap 4 (she and her family are preparing for a ceremony). I feel a bit insecure about these first two chapters since Alice is a very cruel person around “humans” yet she acts as a lovely girl with her family. Would that bother readers?
    Chap 3= Bob enters scene, we get to know what he does. He hunts witches (like Alice’s family) and is planning to interrupt the ceremony and kill everybody on the spot.
    Chap 4= Alice’s family is preparing the ceremony, Bob arrives and kills everybody but Alice, who at that time looks like a normal person (the ritual they were performing was made to turn her into a witch). He thinks she is just a to-be-sacrificed girl and takes her with him.

    Since Bob hunts for many magical beings, chances are Alice will soon find another ‘family’ if she sticks around with him (at that time she cannot just travel by herself: she’s weak, insecurity in roads, dangerous creatures, etc), so they stay together for a long time (she’s proven herself useful by showing advanced medical skills, attained by dissecting people as shown in Chap 1. They are in the Middle Age, so her knowledge is pretty valuable). I do give explanations as to why Alice has witches as family (it’s not as if she were the only one like that), where they come from, Alice’s and Bob’s backstories. Alice is no damsel in distress, since she knows how to keep herself away from danger and usually just helps with strategies/locations.

    I’m not writing a romance (I don’t think anybody would fall for his/her family’s murderer), just how they pursue their goals, how Alice learns about humans. Does this seem cliché, boring, poorly thought out?
    Thank you for your time. My two beta readers usually just point out grammar issues, and this really helps a lot.

  8. B. McKenzieon 17 Feb 2013 at 1:25 pm

    “Alice is introduced, and her personality is shown.” Hmm. My main idea here is that readers are looking for both characters and plots. What is the most important aspect of the plot of this chapter?

    “I feel a bit insecure about these first two chapters since Alice is a very cruel person around “humans” yet she acts as a lovely girl with her family.” It’s hard for me to say without having read the chapter, but a protagonist that is generally very cruel would strike me as hard to work with (especially if the one thing that kept her from being very cruel gets killed off in chapter 4). What is likable about the character? Is there some reason we’d forgive her for being cruel? (For example, military and medical instructors scare because they care… tougher preparation makes it easier for soldiers to survive the war and for doctors to treat patients under pressure).

    Is there any reason readers wouldn’t be rooting for Bob to kill Alice? (E.g. does Alice have any skills not related to the killing/dissecting of innocents? Herbalism, perhaps?)

    “Since Bob hunts for many magical beings, chances are Alice will soon find another ‘family’ if she sticks around with him (at that time she cannot just travel by herself: she’s weak, insecurity in roads, dangerous creatures, etc)… Alice is no damsel in distress, since she knows how to keep herself away from danger…” She’s traveling with a stranger that killed her family because she is physically incapable of safely traveling the roads herself. I fear this setup will make her seem like a damsel in distress? Possible alternative: she could possibly make it on her own, albeit at some risk, BUT the roads at this time are so dangerous that she’d certainly tip off Bob that something was amiss if she went off on her own.

    I really like that there isn’t a romance between the two main characters.

    As plot development, you might consider where they’re headed. Perhaps a monastery which takes in victims of witchcraft and/or is a hub in the fight against witchcraft? This would help add to the urgency of their journey–if she lets him take her there, it’s pretty much all over but the crying when she’s surrounded by witchhunters.

  9. Celofanon 17 Feb 2013 at 2:08 pm

    The main idea in the first chapter is Alice going downstairs to fetch a kid so she can, erm, open him up. Basically the whole place is dark, prisoners hear footsteps, the torches all turn on, they see her and her normal appearance. They feel relieved, she opens a cage, the kid hugs her, somebody realises all the torches were magically on and asks her why. She just smiles, hits the kid with a plank she was carrying and drags him upstairs.
    In the second chapter we learn where they got the people. In order to become a witch, one must have a pact with a demon. One woman was once accused of training to be a witch and was burn at the stake, she died cursing her fate while a demon was around. This woman is part of Alice’s family, and they’re basically kidnapping people from the village where she used to live.
    One of the main parts in the story would be seeing how humans think witches are heartless, how they hunt them. On the other hand, we have witches doing nothing to discourage that way of thinking, having them eating people (?) and such. It creates a vicious cycle with humans making more women hate people by accusing them of witchcraft and killing the ones that are already witches, and witches reacting aggressively. It is not as if nobody had tried to fix the problem, but new ideas were usually ‘killed’ at that time.
    About Bob wanting to kill Alice… hrm. I’ve shown her motivations before Bob enters scene. I don’t feel we can say somebody is completely good or bad, since both sides are wrong (could be explained with hate brings more hate and more cheesy stuff). The only ‘bad’ guys in the book would be the demons, since they are the ones who only wish to create chaos.

    I had thought of Alice thinking ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’ and kill Bob as soon as she found another group of witches (which would require her to never lose sight of him). However that wouldn’t really show how deeply affected by the loss of her family, now that I see it. I will have to work on that part.
    The same way the reader cannot completely agree with Alice, xi cannot completely agree with Bob, because he’s kind of sexist. He doesn’t tell Alice the medieval equivalent of ‘go to the kitchen’ but at the same time he feels he must protect her because ‘women are delicate’. It’ll eventually change with Alice showing women can actually do things by themselves.

    I thought of the last part too. Bob doesn’t work alone, he’s part of some sort of inquisition and has to report there. He takes Alice to the place and she gets pretty uncomfortable.

  10. Delphion 21 Nov 2013 at 2:09 am

    Un hello? Is making the story funny at the beginning, pride at the middle and sad at the end a good idea?

  11. B. McKenzieon 21 Nov 2013 at 8:12 am

    Hello, Delphi. Some ideas:

    1. If the story is funny at the start and the tone changes considerably, readers that liked the humor may be disappointed by the book becoming non-funny. It’s okay if the tone changes but I would recommend maintaining some degree of consistency. If readers do like the initial humor, it may be more reader-friendly to shift from lighter humor to darker humor rather than cut most of the comedy after the first third of the book.

    2. “Is making the story pride [proud?] at the middle a good idea?” What is a pride/proud story?

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply