I find that there are a lot of overlaps between my job as a teacher and my job as a writer. I believe that, in learning how to plan meaningful learning experiences for my students, I have learned how to plan meaningful chapters for my readers. Here are five questions I feel you should ask yourself when planning a scene/chapter for your story:
1. What do I want the reader to learn from this scene/chapter?
Each and every scene in your story should have a point to it. If your reader is not learning something new, then there is no point in including that scene. You should have a clear idea of what you want your reader to learn before you start writing.
2. What do I want the character to learn during this scene/chapter?
As the writer, you need to figure out what you want your character to know, as opposed to what you want your reader to know. A great way to build tension in a story is to have the reader know something really, really important that they hero doesn't. I have been caught out before yelling at a character to look behind them. A great writer is able to craft this so seamlessly that the reader is not even aware that it is happening.
3. Am I assuming too much prior knowledge from the reader?
When I am teaching a class I always write the homework on the board, show the students which pages they have to complete in their books, tell the students what homework they have, and ask the students to repeat back to me what their homework is. And yet, I still have some students come to class telling me that I never told them what homework they had to do, so they didn't do any. Worse, some even complain to their parents that I didn't set them any homework. Argh!
My point is that, just because you mention a detail to a reader does not mean that they will necessarily remember it. Especially in the first few chapters of your book, everything is so new and different that it is all a bit too hard to take in. A sentence or two later should suffice to jog a reader's memory.
A friendly note of warning: Be careful not to go overboard with the whole jogging-the-memory thing. A complete re-hash of previous events will only bore the reader.
4. Are you sharing too much?
As a Science teacher I often find that I have to lie to my students. Not in a bad way, just in a way that prevents me from confusing them. For example, when I am teaching my Year 7's about atoms, I tell them that atoms are the smallest particles there are, and that everything is made up of atoms. This is not strictly correct, because I am deliberately not mentioning protons, electrons, neutrons, or the even smaller again quarks. It is not important for my Year 7's to know the ins and outs of atoms at such an early stage of their Science career, and mentioning them up would only confuse the poor little tykes. My Year 10's, however, are taught a huge amount of information about protons, electrons and neutrons because they can handle it.
So, are you giving your reader too much backstory? Doing so will often confuse the reader or, worse, may lead them to get bored and refuse to read any more of the story. *gasp* You need to keep it simple and drip feed the reader any important information. What your character ate for breakfast that morning can usually be left out of the narrative, for example, as it may clog up your story.
5. Do the readers have any misconceptions that you need to address?
I was watching 'Oz, The Great and Powerful', with my Mum yesterday, and a scene from the movie really stuck with me. When Mila Kunis told James Franco that she was a witch, he asked her where her brookstick was. She was confused, and he said he thought all witches needed a broomstick to fly.
When you are planning, you need to think about what misconceptions your readers may have about anything that you are including in your story. It can be really important to know this, because something a parent has told their child will often stick with them for life even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. A thorough Google search should let you know about the ideas people have about the topic you are writing about.
I hope my Five Points to Ponder help you with your novel planning. Good luck, and be sure to share anything you might be useful that you have learned along the way. Happy writing!
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