Tag Archives: Wheel of Time

Chapter Length and Point of View #amwriting

Authors just starting out often wonder how long a chapter should be. A good rule of thumb is to consider the comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. With that said, you must decide what your style is going to be.

Over the years, I’ve read and enjoyed many books where the authors made each scene a chapter, even if it was only two or three hundred words long. They ended up with over 100 chapters in their books, but it worked for me when I was reading it.

I’ve attended seminars given by authors who say they have a specific word-count limit for their chapter length. One keeps them at 1,500. One of my favorite authors sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each character’s storyline separate and flows well. I personally have found that for my style of storytelling, 2,500 to 3,000 words is a good length.

In a book, each chapter should detail the events of one scene or several related scenes. Chapters are like paragraphs, in that cramming too many disparate ideas into one place makes them feel erratic and disconnected.

One of my forthcoming books has longer chapters, as it is really a collection of short stories that take place over forty years of one character’s life. It follows the chronological order of his life and the chapters are vignettes detailing large events that changed him profoundly. These long chapters do contain hard breaks.

Conversations make good transitions to propel the story forward to the next scene, and they also offer ways to end a chapter with a tidbit of information that will compel the reader to turn the page. Information is crucial but should be offered only as the reader requires it.

A good conversation is about something one or more characters don’t know. It builds toward something the characters are only beginning to understand. A conversation is an opportunity to close a scene or chapter with a hook.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter. They reveal something new and push the story forward toward the final showdown.

Fade-to-black and hard scene breaks: I don’t like fade-to-black transitions except as a finish to a chapter. Fading-to-black at the end of a scene can make the story feel mushy if there is no finite transition.

When a length of time has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, it makes sense to wind it up with a firm finish and a hook and start a new chapter.

Having said that, if you are writing a short story, dividing it into chapters isn’t an option. At the end of a scene, you may find that a hard break is required. Editors with open calls for short stories will often ask that you insert an asterisk or hashtag to indicate a hard scene break.

With each scene, we push the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view. I agree, as a hard transition between characters is the best way to avoid head-hopping.

Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck” and makes following the storyline difficult. Sometimes more than one character has a point of view that needs to be shown but readers will thank you if you limit point of view changes.

One of the problems some readers have with Robert Jordan’s brilliant Wheel of Time Series is the way he wandered around between storylines as if he couldn’t decide who the main character was. Rand Al Thor begins as the protagonist, but Matrim, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are also given prime story lines.

I’m a dedicated WoT fan, but even I found that exceedingly annoying long about book eight, Path of Daggers. I was halfway through reading that book when I realized there was a good chance that we were never going to see Rand do what he was reborn to do.

At that point, I kept reading because the world and the events were so intriguing.

As very few of us are writers at Robert Jordan’s level, I suggest you concentrate on developing a single compelling, well-rounded main character, with the side characters well-developed but not upstaging the star.

It’s easier for the reader to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the story. If you do switch POV characters, I strongly suggest that you change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs or end the chapter.

Now we come to a commonly asked question: Should I use numbers, or give each chapter a name?

What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If snappy titles pop up in your mind for each chapter, by all means go for it. Otherwise, numbered chapters are perfectly fine and don’t throw the reader out of the book. One series of my books has numbered chapters, the other has titled chapters.

Whichever style of chapter heading you choose, numbered or titled, be consistent and stay with that choice for the entire book.

To wind this up: Limit your point of view characters to one per scene. Limit each chapter to show events that are related, rather than a jumble of unrelated events.

When it comes to chapter length, you must make the decision as to the right length and end chapters at a logical place. But do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.

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Elements of a story: Identifying your protagonist

War_of_the_FlowersGreat plots drive great stories, but the best stories start with a character that really moved me. The trouble is, when we first begin to write a story, one character leads to another and soon, each character is vying to tell your their own story. It’s sort of like a family gathering, where they all talk at once, and you love them all.

This makes writing a true stand-alone book difficult. Tad Williams managed to do just that in 2003 with The War of the Flowers.  Theo Vilmos is a thirty-year-old lead singer in a marginally successful rock band. Fearing he is past his prime, he seeks refuge in a remote cabin in the woods. There, he reads a memoir written by a (perhaps) dead relative. This relative claimed he had visited the magical world of Faerie. A series of strange events occurs and before Theo knows it, he too is drawn into a place that is both strange and yet familiar to him, revealing the truth about many things that had always puzzled him.

war_flowersWilliams had another great character to draw on in his little fairy, Applecore, but he kept it contained in one wonderful novel detailing Theo Vilmos’ adventures rather than going too far afield and having to serialize it. This is a model we lesser-known fantasy authors might want to take a closer look at and somehow revive: the stand-alone novel.

We might have a great story in our head, and we may have an awesome cast of characters dying to leap onto the page, but until we know who the hero is, we have no story. From the first page to the last, Tad Williams knew who his hero was in The War of the Flowers, and it’s clear that he never doubted it was Theo Vilmos.

Sometimes  identifying just whose emotional and physical journey you will be following is easier said than done. When faced with a pantheon of great characters, ask yourself these questions (listed here in no particular order):

  • Who among these people has the most to lose?
  • Which character do you find the most interesting?
  • Who’s personal story inspired this tale in the first place?
  • Who will be best suited to taking full advantage of all this plot’s possibilities?

Dragonbone_ChairFrom my point of view, one of the best fantasy series of all time is Tad Williams’  epic, three-volume masterpiece, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. It opens with volume one, The Dragonbone Chair. This is a very different tale than The War of the Flowers, much larger, and encompassing several entire cultures on the edge of disaster.

In this opening volume, Tad had many great characters to draw on, all of whom had strong stories. Indeed, there is a large cast of characters with incredible possibilities, but as a reader I liked that he managed to tell their stories without losing sight of the original story that sparked the series in the first place.

The fact that Williams was able to weave the many threads of such a large cast of characters into one enthralling story and still leave (Seoman) Simon Snowlock as the main protagonist with a gripping story-line  is amazing.

Green_Angel_Tower_P1Yet in this series, Tad Williams does just that. He could have written it as the story of Prince JosuaPrincess Miriamele, Binabik the Troll, or even the Norn prince, Jiriki. They are each compelling characters, with deep, intriguing back-stories, and any of them would have been an awesome protagonist.

Each and every one of the many characters in this series was strong enough to warrant a book of their own, but Simon the kitchen boy remains the central character, and the other story-lines are detailed but remain subordinate to his, fleshing it out and defining his ultimate fate, driving the plot to the final denouement, and the cataclysmic events in Green Angel Tower.

To_Green_Angel_TowerThis juggling act, this ability to not become sidetracked by your wonderful side-characters while telling their story is critical to the progression of your plot. It’s excruciatingly easy to become so enthralled with the story-line of a minor player that you derail your novel in the first draft.

I’m a gamer and I play Final Fantasy type RPGs. I adore side-quests, and I love a little back-story to flesh out whatever tale I’m reading, but just like in a game, the protagonist and the core plot has to stay in motion. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn has a lot of side-quests, and a lot of back-story, but despite the opportunities for derailment, it is propelled irresistibly toward the final catastrophic event, and does it in three admittedly large books.

A_Memory_of_Light_cover (1)As much as I adored the Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan seemed to fall into the trap of loving all his characters too much, and wanting to tell each of their truly epic stories in the one series–and it couldn’t be done without aggravating his fans.

Consider this: although it was originally planned as a six-book series, The Wheel of Time grew to encompass fourteen volumes, a prequel novel, and a companion book.  Jordan began writing the first volume, The Eye of the World, in 1984. It was published in January 1990. With Jordan’s death on 16 September 2007, the conclusion of the series was in question, but Brandon Sanderson stepped in and did a masterful job of taking Jordan’s incredible mass of notes and background, along with the rough draft and finished the series’ final three installments.

Stone_of_FarewellIt occasionally happens that you have chosen a protagonist, but another character suddenly seems to have a more intriguing way about him. It is up to you to make a decision–who will be the central character? If, after all is said and done, a different character than the one you originally thought was the protagonist comes to the fore, you must go back and rewrite your beginning to to reflect that.

Deciding who that protagonist will be is a matter of knowing which character has the most opportunity to take full advantage of all the possibilities. The other characters serve only to propel him/her to the final conflict.

Sometimes, as in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, that character is the 14 year old kitchen boy on the verge of manhood, and not the battle-hardened prince with the tragic history.

 

 

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Comfort Books, the main course: The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The Eye Of The WorldFor the main course of this three course meal I’ve chosen a hearty 14-book trilogy. I warned you that many of the books I love and turn to when I need a good book are NOT comforting in any way, and for many people the incredibly long, epic series, the Wheel of Time, definitely falls into the UNcomfortable category. This is for a variety of reasons.

The Eye of the World was the opening volley in what would ultimately become one of the most controversial series in epic fantasy. Written by Robert Jordan and first published in 1990, this series of books has polarized the most dedicated fans of true fantasy into two groups: the lovers and the haters.  No reader walks away from this series unscathed.

WoT05_TheFiresOfHeavenThe story begins in the exceedingly rural village of  Emond’s Field. They are so rural that they have no concept that they are still considered to be a part of a larger country. The village is suddenly attacked by Trollocs (the antagonist’s soldiers) and a Myrddraal (the undead-like officer commanding the Trollocs).  These creatures are intent on capturing the three protagonists, Rand al’Thor, Matrim (Mat) Cauthon, Perrin Aybara, although why they are being hunted is not revealed at first. To save their village from further attacks, Rand, Mat, Perrin, and Egwene (Rand’s first love interest) flee the village, accompanied by the Aes Sedai Moiraine Damodred, her Warder, Al’Lan Mandragoran, and gleeman, Thom Merrilin.They are later joined by Nynaeve al’Meara, who is their village’s medicine woman.

WoT03_TheDragonRebornThis huge range of characters and the many, many threads that weave an incredibly tangled plot are what polarizes the reading community over this series of books. Originally intended to be a trilogy, it eventually expanded to encompass fourteen LARGE, long books.

Robert Jordan passed away in 2007 while working on the final book, leaving the series uncompleted, but he left the rough draft and enough notes behind that Brandon Sanderson was able to finish the series, eventually breaking that final volume into three very large  books, and bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion.

WoT10_CrossroadsOfTwilightSo what is the basis for the plot’s tension, what conflict could possibly draw the reader in and keep them reading for such a long, drawn out process? It’s Robert Jordan, folks–the eternal quest for power, and dominance through violence, religion and politics is the core of this tale. According to Wikipedia, the Fount of All Knowledge: The series draws on numerous elements of both European and Asian mythology, most notably the cyclical nature of time found in Buddhism and Hinduism, the metaphysical concepts of balance and duality, and a respect for nature found in Daoism. Additionally, its creation story has similarities to Christianity’s “Creator” (Light) and Shai’tan, “The Dark One” (Shaytan is an Arabic word which in religious contexts is used as a name for the Devil). It was also partly inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869).”

300px-WoT08_ThePathOfDaggersI loved the first three books in this series. I both enjoyed and endured the next three, hoping Robert Jordan would get to the point and finish the damned series. I had become a little irritated with book eight, Path of Daggers, but by the time Winter’s Heart came out, I was resigned to never seeing an end to it, and was back to simply enjoying each strange plot twist and new random thread for what it was–just a great tale.

When Robert Jordan died, I was thrilled that Brandon Sanderson was the author tapped to finally bring that unwieldy mess together. There were so many different stories within the greater story that the task of winding up each thread must have been incredibly daunting, and he did it magnificently.

The reason so many devoted fans abandoned the series somewhere around book six , Lord of Chaos, was that Rand al’Thor’s story ( and Mat’s and Perrin’s) stalled, and Jordan was sent way off track by the stories of Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elaine Trakand. In fantasy, there is a large contingent of readers who want instant gratification are not going to wait around for eight more books. They proved it by jumping ship and trash-talking his work.

TheGatheringStormUSCoverThroughout the series, the quality of the writing never faltered. The depth of story and the intensely alive characters whose stories graced those pages never failed to intrigue me. The fact that it felt like the conflict would never be resolved was, at times, upsetting to me as a reader, and is a lesson authors should take to heart with their own work.

To write a story that is so compelling that readers become so violently polarized over it is quite an accomplishment.  I see this happening with George R.R. Martin‘s fans right now. Although I adore him as a person, I’ve never cared much for his style of writing, as he jumps around too much even for me. Have patience, people! It looks like George has a large story there too, so it may take him a while.

Towers_of_Midnight_hardcoverFor Brandon Sanderson to step into the wasps’ nest of controversy that was the Wheel of Time and complete the series with such grace and finesse is nothing short of amazing, and I am glad I stuck with it to the end. Brandon Sanderson has become one of my favorite authors because of what he did to wind up this epic series.

In the end, the final resolution was satisfying, and was well worth the journey.  I have gotten rid of most of my hard copies, and am down to only one room’s worth of hardbound books at our house. I don’t buy too many hard copies of books, being a fan of the Kindle, and  but I did make an exception for this book.   For me, some books need to be in hard copy form and the Wheel of Time Series is one of them, as are the Harry Potter books. There was a large contingent of people who were upset that the epub edition wasn’t released until 4 months after the paperbook, but this was a choice made by Robert Jordan’s widow and her publisher, TOR. It was a strange one in my opinion, but it was their choice.

A_Memory_of_Light_coverAmazon’s early reviews of the later books in this series were rife with trolls and naysayers who couldn’t wait to emerge from the woodwork and have their say. Apparently very few of these people purchased the book, much less read it. That is the price of success and these days it’s almost an honor to have so many haters just spoiling to knock you down. But their strident caws and self-important rants should have no effect on the true fans of WoT. In my humble opinion these works are masterpieces and Brandon Sanderson’s three books are a triumphant finish to the series.

I love Brandon Sanderson’s handling of this series finale, and feel I more than got my money’s worth from this series of book, as I will definitely read it again and again–in my opinion it’s that good. If you love this series, you will love the way it ends!

The original cover artist for these amazing books was none other than the late Darrell K. Sweet, who was just as amazing a fantasy artist as is Michael Whelan. The newer covers are nice, but for me they lack the power of Sweet’s brilliant paintings.

And as we all know, I buy most books for their covers, even epubs, and then fall in love with the tale.

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