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  • chapter sequences
    by richard123 at 06:20 on 16 June 2013
    Hi and thanks for reading this post.

    Can you tell me how to structure paragraphs in a mystery novel.

    I was told by a writer who has had work published that the first chapter should be fast and exciting to hook the reader and introduce the mystery.

    The second chapter should be a flashback to explain and introduce people, previous events and the mystery.

    How should the rest of the chapters go, is there a particular way mystery novels should run.

    Many thanks in advance. John.
  • Re: chapter sequences
    by debac at 11:13 on 16 June 2013
    I don't think it's anywhere near that prescriptive, Richard. I think you have to find your own way - your own structure.

    Yes, the first chapter needs to hook the reader. After that, it's all down to you, really, to create a structure that works well for your story.

    There is such a thing as story shape. I recommend you read "Creating Short Fiction" by Damon Knight, which will give you some pointers. It's about short stories, but most of the info is just as relevant to novels IMO.


    Another thing you can do is analyse novels in your genre that you've enjoyed. See what they do. Don't copy slavishly, but learn from them.

    Good luck,

  • Re: chapter sequences
    by EmmaD at 15:15 on 16 June 2013
    Yes, that's way too prescriptive, and many a badly-built novel has ground to a halt in Chapter Two as a result.

    You certainly do need to plunge the reader straight into the urgent problem - that's true of any novel, crime or otherwise - but you also need to plunge us straight into why we should care about these people and this problem. Otherwise, we're not likely to be patient when you then press the pause button and zig-zag back to dump lumps of the past into our laps. And if you have made us care about these people and their problem in the first, urgent chapter one, then you won't need lumps of backstory in chapter two anyway - the backstory can just leak out as and when the frontstory, for want of a better word, naturally lets it.

    The king of books about story structure is Robert McKee's Story. It is very prescriptive, in one sense, partly because of its origins in scriptwriting, which is a much tighter form than fiction. But as long as you're willing to take what it says as guidelines not rules, then it's pure gold.

    Deb's advice is sound. Pick a handful of the best novels (not necessarily the bestselling but the ones which worked most powerfully on you) of the sort you're trying to write, and work your way through each one, analysing what it is that keeps you reading, and what - perhaps - doesn't. And not only what but why.

    This post of mine, about handling backstory and flashbacks, might help you to think the issues through a bit:


    and this is about the whole relationship of story to plot.

  • Re: chapter sequences
    by SandraD at 15:42 on 16 June 2013
    Timely query for me Richard, thanks, and the replies all very useful too. Also I would add, was Emma's recommendation of Scrivener for sorting chapters.
    None of which has prevented me from going about this in the most time-consuming manner imaginable, but at least I am doing so with the knowledge of several signposts when I get really stuck.
    (That said, I'm 50K words in and don't yet know who did it, which also makes writing a synopsis difficult)


    link for Scrivener post:
  • Re: chapter sequences
    by debac at 20:59 on 16 June 2013
    After reading your comment, Emma, I've just ordered McKee's Story. I've heard it mentioned many times and for some reason I get it muddled with The Writer's Journey, which I have and have read. This time I actually put my money where my intention was...
  • Re: chapter sequences
    by Terry Edge at 12:57 on 17 June 2013
    Just to echo Deb's recommendation, of Damon Knight's book. I think it's the best there is on both the nuts and bolts of writing and why those nuts and bolts exist in the first place. Damon Knight taught at Clarion for many years - one of the six-week US workshops built around critiquing (using the Milford Method).
  • Re: chapter sequences
    by richard123 at 06:29 on 18 June 2013
    Hi. Many thanks for the replies, much appreciated.

    The writer who gave me this information said that nowadays books can start at the end and work their way back to the beginning, or start half way through the story and move backwards and forwards through the timeline. In other words they can jump all over the place so flashbacks are common.

    I was thinking of this: chapter one: Fast and exciting to hook the reader.

    Chapter two: Dedicate to one of the three main characters to give plenty of information about them; likes, dislikes, job, hopes for the future, personal problems so that readers can empathise.

    Chapter three: further the story.

    Chapter four: Dedicate to the second and third main characters.

    Chapter Five: Continue the story.

    Do you think this is a good idea to spend some time giving an insight to what drives the three main characters or do you think it may be a little jarring and detract from the story. Do you think it will provide breaks between the chapters.

    My original idea was to alternate chapters between what the good guys are up to and what the bad guys are doing

    Many thanks.
  • Re: chapter sequences
    by SandraD at 08:56 on 18 June 2013
    Richard, I'm currently about a third way through what is hoped to be a thriller with three strands. At the moment I'm alternating them but know that they keep merging/will merge later on so that can't be a hard and fast 'rule'.

    I didn't have such a pattern in my head to start with, wrote each strand as one long piece and am now dividing up and dove-tailing each, making sure to end each chapter with a hook to keep the reader turning the page, although the next chapter answers the query raised at the end of last but two chapters. (and chapters range in length from 600 words to 2600, which doesn't bother me, as I see it, rightly or wrongly, as allowing the reader to settle for a bit.)

    It'll be better too, to gradually build characters as the action progresses rather than in separate, dedicated chapters (I know this from experience!)and alternating ones sound like a good idea.

    I've gained a lot of insight from analysing books which I've especially ejoyed - currently Chris Brookmyre and Karen Campbell are informing me - so suggest you try that too.
  • Re: chapter sequences
    by EmmaD at 09:46 on 18 June 2013
    It's certainly true that even at the very commercial end of the spectrum readers are very experienced these days, and will assemble a story which is told out of sequence. But this:

    to spend some time giving an insight to what drives the three main characters or do you think it may be a little jarring and detract from the story.

    rings a little alarm bell for me.

    I think the problem with this approach isn't jarring, but the risk that it presses the pause button on the main story, and then give us a load of stuff which may be interesting, but is short on narrative drive, and even if it has its own internal drive (a dramatic childhood incident, say) isn't about the main forward movement of the story. You give us a body on page one, and just as we're about to find out who it is and what it died of, you press the pause button and deliver pages about a bullying older brother or an aged parent.

    The thing is, as I was saying further up, it doesn't have to be either-or - either action, or flashback/description/whatever. What you need to be doing is conveying what drives the characters, where they come from etc., why this emergency is so urgent and important while the main story keeps running forwards.

    It is, after all, how we experience our own lives: we don't put our own lives on hold and sit for a day remembering a crucial incident in childhood or explaining our extreme anxiety and insecurity about money, or love. We keep trundling on with what's happening, and bits of our past and our feelings and our decisions as and when the immediate moment draws them out.

    For example (horribly clunky example coming up), if what drives your MC is the need to make enough money to keep the aged mother in a wonderful care home, you don't need paragraphs to tell us that. Your MC can be waiting for the police to interview her, and as she sits drinking machine coffee and trying not to have flashbacks of the severed head she found on the riverback, she can also think, "Oh, god, I wish they'd hurry up. I'm going to be late. Will the staff reassure Mum? I'm sure they will - they're lovely." and then she goes to the cashpoint, still waiting, can't get any money out, and thinks "It is a mistake, isn't it? I can't just be that I've run out of money. But what about The Laurels? The standing order went through didn't--" and at that point the police inspector calls her.

    ooooh - editing again. What fun!

    One of the things I use my Planning Grid for is to have a column which tracks the release of backstory and information from the past, as the narrative moves forward. There will be a column for what the reader knows, but in a story which depends a lot on some characters not knowing things, and others knowing things, and so on, you can actually use a column or more for the business of who finds out what when...

    Edited by EmmaD at 09:49:00 on 18 June 2013
  • Re: chapter sequences
    by debac at 11:04 on 18 June 2013
    Richard, Emma is very experienced so do heed her words about how to drip-feed the backstory. You certainly don't want whole chapters dedicated to it. If you did, it would be an "info dump" and pretty boring to the reader.

    likes, dislikes, job, hopes for the future

    Definitely a bad idea. Imagine if you met someone in real life and they insisted on telling you this stuff all at once. You'd be bored and irritated. And so will the reader be. It would also be "tell" and not "show". Most (not all) of fiction writing should be show and not tell.

    My original idea was to alternate chapters between what the good guys are up to and what the bad guys are doing

    That's a much better idea! Yes, do this. Focus on showing the story unfold. Whilst the story unfolds you can show bits and pieces about the characters so the reader gets to know them better.

    I really think it would help you to read a how-to book on creative writing before you begin.

    Deb (By the way, just so that you know, I like blueberries and cats and bodyflying and sunshine, and hate coffee and early mornings and being cold. My hopes for the future are to live in a hot country when my husband retires, and be really successful at writing novels. My personal problems are mainly my poor health. See how interesting this is? You don't really care, do you? )
  • Re: chapter sequences
    by EmmaD at 12:57 on 18 June 2013
    LoL Deb!

    Richard - that link to the Plot and Story piece on my blog links to an excellent TED talk by the scriptwriter Andrew Stanton.

    The relevant bit for this discussion, I think, is his discussion of how the opening must make a promise to the reader that staying with the story - making the journey - will be worth the reader's while. And you have to keep on delivering on that promise.

    Yes, we need to be involved with the characters, in order to care about what happens to them. But the facts that make us care aren't, as Deb says, Stuff about them: it's about them as characters-in-action in the story. You may need to know, or even write, loads of backstory to realise that the key to her is that she was bitten by a dog when she was six and has been frightened of them ever since. We only need to know that she's frightened of dogs but will force herself to wrestle with one, if she has to, to save her beloved planet...

  • Re: chapter sequences
    by debac at 16:18 on 18 June 2013
  • Re: chapter sequences
    by richard123 at 08:31 on 19 June 2013
    Hi. Many thanks for all the info.

    I am a 32 year old virgin (writer that is) Nothing published, never submitted a manuscript.

    Can you tell me are there any books i can buy which you would consider essential reading for someone like me, or perhaps any webpages i can visit which have need-to-know information.

    I know that if i spend a year putting a manuscript together then it gets rejected by publishers this will be heart breaking for me and i will probably give up writing, this is a one-shot deal and i will take the feedback i get from the first manuscript as proof if i have got it or have not.

    So far i have read: Ben Bova - The craft of writing science fiction that sells

    Bob Mayer - A guide to writing novels and getting published

    Frey, James N - How to write a damn good novel (vol 1 and 2)

    Koontz, Dean - Writing popular fiction

    Stein, Sol - Stein on Writing

    Guess it's the promise made in the book title that made me buy these rather than the substance, but what do you think.

    Many Thanks.
    john11 is online now Report Post Edit/Delete Message
  • Re: chapter sequences
    by debac at 11:02 on 19 June 2013
    I don't mean to put a damper on things, Richard, but you have to be realistic - it takes much longer than that for most people. If you really want it, I'd suggest you think of it more as a journey towards publication rather than a one-shot attempt.

    Are you writing full-time during this year, or fitting it around a f/t job?

    It's great that you've read some how-to books. Have you considered doing a course? How about:


    or an Open University one:


    Do get that Damon Knight book - it really is a great grounder.

  • Re: chapter sequences
    by Terry Edge at 11:56 on 19 June 2013
    Not sure what you mean by a 'one shot deal' but if you're saying you'll give up writing if your first ms gets rejected, then I think you're going to have a pretty short career. Same if you are going to take any feed-back (from editors, presumably) as proof of whether or not you have got it.

    Only you know if you've got it. Any editor giving feed-back on a rejected ms (which is rare these days in any case) is simply covering her back - "not right for us", "not what we're looking for at the moment" - which means nothing with regard to whether or not you have it.

    Most writers who get published have had a lot more rejections than they let on about. For example, I switched to writing short SF/Fantasy fiction a few years back. I'd had several children's books published, so wasn't an unproven writer. I'd also attended the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop - recognised as a good sign that you're a serious writer, mention of which in your cover letter should at least get your story considered. All the same, it took over 18 months and more than a 100 rejections before I sold my first story. And I still get far more rejections than sales.

    As for webpages, the best I know for learning about the business and reality of publishing are:




    I don't mean to put a damper on things, Richard, but you have to be realistic - it takes much longer than that for most people. If you really want it, I'd suggest you think of it more as a journey towards publication rather than a one-shot attempt.

    Totally agree with this. Funnily enough, I'm giving a talk to a group of writers tonight and have decided to focus on the journey of writing. Writers waste too much time and emotion in fixating on what they perceive as the end of the journey - publication (not that it is anyway, since it's harder to stay published than get there these days) - and miss out on gaining the rich (if not often frustrating) experiences the journey provides, which actually help you get there, albeit usually in ways you didn't expect.
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