February 17, 2014

Writing Tip: Checking Your Chapters

So you've finished the first draft of your novel. Kudos! You're in a very elite group. Now that the hard part is done, it's time for the fun. Really...rewriting is fun! Your draft is the foundation; now you add the paint and the hardwood floors and the shutters and the furniture.
How do you know if your chapters are working? It's not that easy - we're so close to our work and all of those essential elements are in our heads so we think they're on the page. But maybe they're not.
Nancy Pickard
Here's a great way to check. It's a system developed by Nancy Pickard, author of The Scent of Rain and Lightning, and The Virgin of Small Plains. She calls it CASTS, and it's an acronym for a way to determine if each chapter has the elements that will keep people reading. It works. Check it out:

C Conflict
We know in fiction that there must be conflict on every page, even if it’s just a character wanting a glass of water that they can’t get. There should be a conflict in every chapter. It doesn’t necessarily have to be THE conflict of the novel, but in some way, you need to illustrate or explore something your character wants but hasn’t yet been able to get.

 A Action
There needs to be action in every chapter. You might think this is gratuitous. Of course there is action in every chapter, but what kind of action? Internal monologues won’t do it. Beautiful narratives won’t either, unless one of your characters does something during the narrative. 

S Surprise
Something in every chapter should surprise a character…and/or the reader. Again, this doesn’t have to be a BIG surprise. It could be something as small as a character discovering an object they hadn’t seen before. It could be as big as finding a dead body. Or the reader discovering that a character is not the person they thought he/she was.
Anytime a character says,

“Oh really?”


“Oh my God”

you have surprise. BTW, surprises may be hiding, and your characters don’t readily see them. Tease them out, reveal them in a unique way, and you’ll have more drama.

T Turn
This concept comes from screenwriter Robert McKee’s well known book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. Even though McKee is discussing film scripts, Nancy says the principle works just fine with novels. The idea is that something needs to “turn”— or change in every chapter. Again, this doesn’t have to be a big change. It could be a character’s mood swinging from hope to despair or from fear to confidence. It could be as simple as changing locations… a character drives from the beach back to town. A character might change their clothes. Then again, it could be a major “turn,” ie an important plot reveal or event. But whatever its nature, a turn is essential for every chapter.

S Sensory Detail

This is pretty much what you think: a reminder to use all five senses in your narrative to describe your characters, setting, and action. Personally, I feel the sense of smell is underused, but it’s extremely powerful; so use it judiciously. 

Testing CASTS
Now… how do you know if you’ve used CASTS effectively in a chapter? Here’s a way to check: 
Get 5 different colored highlighters, one for each letter in CASTS. Print out the chapter. Then go through it line by line and highlight the parts of your chapter that correspond to each element of CASTS. If you’ve missed one, well, you know what to do.

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