Misc. · Writing

The One-Chapter Curse

Some writers write really fast. Some write really slow. Jack Kerouac apparently took just weeks to write On the Road while most people take years. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo–I tried once and I ended up making it like two days–but I do know people who it’s worked for. Just not me. I guess I fall somewhere in the medium-paced category of writers–my problem is what I’m deeming the one-chapter curse.

It also has to do with my least favorite aspect of writing–plotting.

I’m currently working on writing something new, but I keep getting stuck after the first chapter. It’s not necessarily even the first chapter, just a chapter. Sometimes I have an idea–pretty formed–sometimes I just have a first line, and I build the character from there: “She was the kind of girl who cared about firsts.” That was one that came to me recently, as I was organizing my jewelry box and came across one half of the first pair of earrings my boyfriend ever bought me. I feel bad that I lost one of them, and how I’m bad about preserving things like that, and then the line came to me, and all-of-a-sudden there is a love triangle and two teenage best friends, and I’m writing again, and it’s great.

But then I get somewhere between about three and ten pages, and it just kind of halts. I just don’t know how to get to the next scene. I get the character, I get why they’re upset, why they’re happy, maybe even a little bit about what they want, but I don’t know what they’ll do next.

There are a lot of writers who are plot-masters, and a lot of them take a lot of flak for not being literary and being too commercial. Especially genre, like mystery and crime thrillers and all that. But in defense of plot-heavy works, plotting is really hard. I can make up characters all day, and I hope I can make them feel real. I can describe a setting, and I actually really enjoy writing dialogue, just jotting down what I imagine two people would say if they were talking.


It’s something that for me, I can’t sit down and think up–it kind of just has to come. Sometimes, I’m feeling especially frustrated, and I do silly things like look up plot generators. Here’s one (you have to pretend to be a 6th grader to get it to work). After a few spins, I have this: “Write a letter to a sunburned spider monkey who finds an undiscovered island.”

I know writers who have the opposite problem, who have fully-formed plots but trouble getting them down, building the world, etc. I guess we just all have our strengths and weaknesses. And I suppose if I keep on writing (not about spider monkeys), the characters will eventually do something. The whole story will come, as it always has before. That’s how Joyce Carol Oates does it, and she’s written a LOT.

Needless to say, any advice on plotting would be much appreciated.

Above: Jack Kerouac via Poetry Scores.

2 thoughts on “The One-Chapter Curse

  1. I really enjoyed this post, your strengths are mine and your weaknesses are mine. Right or wrong, here was one tactic I tried:

    Write that first hook. Run with it until the idea runs dry, and then ask what would make this more exciting? Or what would be unexpected? What would take this story in a new direction?

    I completed me first full length novel, after several other attempts, this way. Whenever my story languished, I threw something new at the characters I already had in place. You’ll decide if a kidnapping, a sniper, or a new love triangle is what your story needs, but what ever it is, it’ll have to feel right to you.

  2. Hey, Leah. Yeah–spot on. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Like you, I’m pretty good at coming out of the gate, but then I sorta fade into the stretch. One thing that has helped me tremendously with plot is a book called the “Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler. He breaks down a story’s structure–beginning, middle, and ending. It turned my writing life around and I think completely differently now when I write. Great stuff all the way around.

    Thanks for the post!

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