A few weeks ago I finished reading the wonderful Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. When Hugh was interviewing for his new job in the US, he popped into the local town, Concord, New Hampshire, and visited Gibsons, a gorgeous independent book shop that’s been running for over 100 years. They recommended Eleanor & Park, as a great YA novel. Knowing that I was working on my first YA novel, Wishbones, Hugh brought it back for me as a coming home present. So, I suppose I was well predisposed to the story even before I started reading it, but regardless, it’s a wonderful, wonderful novel which I wholeheartedly recommend, especially to teenagers who feel a bit out of sink with their world.
Eleanor & Park is full of all the things I love: it’s strongly rooted in the contemporary world, it’s full of achingly real characters – and misfits too, another soft spot of mine; it sparkles with humour; it’s laced through with romance (which never falls into sentimentality) and there are great moments of pathos too, in which you feel deeply for the characters.
The novel also uses one of my favourite techniques: multiple point of view, in this case an alternate point of view between a girl (Eleanor) and a boy (Park). But what I’d like to focus on for the purposes of this exercise is something special Rainbow Rowell does with her chapters. She doesn’t feel bound to our convention of writing whole, long scenes. Sometimes, her point of view chapters are only a few lines long. Sometimes even just a sentence. But goodness do those lines pull a punch. This technique reminds me of Hemingway’s assertion that a whole short story can be present in one sentence, as in his famous example:
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
Have a look at the short, alternate chapters below and think about what they achieve as regards plot and character but also as regards engaging the readers’ emotions. Eleanor and Park are falling in love and these snapshots give us a much more powerful sense of how they are feeling than long, drawn out chapters would have done.
What makes this workshop effective?
Understanding that, just like a paragraph is a unit of sense and so can be as short as one word and as long as page (or more), so too, chapters can be both long and very short.
Our natural tendency is to be expansive, so learning to be brief is a wonderful skill, and one that our readers will appreciate.
Practising the art of concision, is always a good thing!
- Read the extract from Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and look carefully at how much she achieves in such a short space of time.
- If you’re working on a short story or novel already: think of a key, dramatic moment for your character which would benefit from a series of short, dramatic chapters.
- If you’re writing from scratch: think of one or more characters and a dramatic situation that he or she finds himself in, and use this to frame your chapters.
- You needn’t write from multiple or alternate points of view, your piece could all be from one perspective and it could be in the first or third person. However, as you can see from the example below, it can create wonderful tension to do an exchange between two people, to flit between their heads as each of them responds to the other.
- Plan to write five short chapters, like in the example below.
- Make sure that no chapter is longer than six lines. Try to write at least one, one line chapter.
- Decide on one idea, emotion, character trait or plot point you want each chapter to convey. Each chapter should serve a purpose.
- Now write!
When she saw Park standing at the bust stop on Monday morning, she started giggling. Seriously, giggling like a cartoon character…when their cheeks get all red, and little hearts start popping out of their ears…
It was ridiculous.
When he saw Eleanor walking toward him on Monday morning, Park wanted to run to her and sweep her up in his arms. Like some guy in the soap operas his mom watched. He hung onto his backpack to hold himself back….
It was kind of wonderful.
Park was just her height, but he seemed taller.
Eleanor’s eyelashes were the same colour as her freckles.
They talked about the White Album on the way to school, but just as an excuse to stare at each other’s mouths. You’d think they were lip-reading.
Maybe that’s why Park kept laughing, even when they were talking about “Helter Skelter” – which wasn’t the Beatles’ funniest song, even before Charles Manson got hold of it.