After assessing the purpose of an ending and a beginning, it is only natural that we look at the purpose of a chapter. If the trick to writing a great ending is to wrap up the story and ram home its message; and that of a beginning is to introduce the main character and his/her goals, as well as set the tone for the rest of the story, then what is the trick to writing a brilliant chapter or scene?
Fundamentally, the purpose of a chapter is to go from Point A to Point B in the plot. By this, I do not necessarily mean that a character physically goes from one place to the next. Of course, this can happen. But what I specifically mean about going from Point A to Point B in the plot is that at Point B there must be a material difference in circumstance for the characters involved.
In other words, because of an event that has happened in the chapter, the characters (being at Point B) cannot go back to Point A anymore. Something irreversible has occurred to alter their situation. This event can be one (or several) from this non-exhaustive list below.
The death of a character is the ultimate event that ensures that the living characters cannot go back to their earlier situation (Point A). The remaining characters should be affected by the death of the character and force them to make a decision that has consequence(s) for the rest of the narrative.
Since we have discussed death scenes in detail in four recent blog posts, we shall not go through them in great depth again. Nonetheless, I will cite the example of Boromir’s death in The Lord of the Rings to elucidate upon how death can be involved in the trick to writing a brilliant chapter.
Example – The Departure of Boromir
In the first chapter of The Two Towers (aptly titled ‘The Departure of Boromir’), Aragorn hears a horn blowing frantically. It’s Boromir, calling for aid. Aragorn runs to Boromir as quickly as he can. But by the time he reaches his ally, Boromir is slumped against a tree with arrows protruding from his thorax, with around two dozen Uruk-Hais slain around him.
With dying breath, Boromir tells Aragorn that Merry & Pippin have been taken captive by the Uruk-Hai. Moreover, Boromir confesses that he tried to take the Ring from Frodo (thereby redeeming himself of his misdemeanor). Boromir dies soon afterwards, and then Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli give him an appropriate send-off. Crucially, at the end of the chapter, the information Boromir gives Aragorn about Merry & Pippin makes Aragorn decide to chase after their captors to save them, rather than follow Frodo.
Therefore, a chapter that starts off with Boromir fighting, ends with him dying and with the remaining characters making a decision based on the information he provides them. ‘The Departure of Boromir’ an outstanding chapter as it achieves what it sets out to do, pushes the narrative forward, and Boromir’s death has a ripple effect on the rest of the story: it makes Aragorn change course to become the King he was always meant to be, and it causes Denethor to go mad with grief… just when the armies of Mordor are gathering to smash Gondor for good.
Find Out Crucial Information
The trick to writing a brilliant chapter or scene can be simply characters finding out crucial information. Once they have learned this information, their situation changes irreversibly as they have to make a decision that will have corollary for the rest of the narrative.
Characters can find out crucial information in one of two ways:
- They are told it by someone; or
- They discover it on their own.
Example For A – Bill Cutting Gets Told Who Amsterdam Really Is in Gangs of New York
In a scene two-thirds of the way through Martin Scorsese’s excellent film, Gangs of New York (2002), an envious Johnny (Henry Thomas) rats on his close friend, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), to their ruthless mobster boss, Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Jonny tells Bill that his precocious underling is no less than the son of Father Vallon, who Bill killed in battle in the opening scene. Bill is furious when he learns this. He had been treating Amsterdam like the son he never had.
Understandably, Bill feels betrayed because Amsterdam lied to him about his true identity. What this means is that Bill is going to have to cut Amsterdam from his gang, mercilessly. In the next scene, Bill confronts Amsterdam, tortures him publicly, and casts him out for good. From then on, the two are sworn enemies.
(In addition, later on, when Amsterdam finds out that it was Jonny who told Bill about his true identity, Amsterdam realises that he has to kill Jonny, even though he doesn’t want to. Not too long afterwards, Amsterdam shoots him.)
Example For B – Caleb discovers Nathan’s Plans In Ex Machina
The material difference is the same whether characters are told the information or if they discover it on their own accord. For example, three-quarters through Alex Garland’s terrific sci-fi movie, Ex Machina (2015), Caleb (Domhnall Glesson) secretly goes onto the computer of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
To his horror, he discovers Nathan’s true plans for the robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander). As a result, Caleb spends the rest of the narrative trying to help Ava escape from the retreat where she is being kept.
One of the most beautiful and satisfying moments in a narrative can be when a character realises something significant through his/her own personal growth. This realization can be the trick to writing a brilliant chapter or scene as it changes the character and alters his/her approach, going forwards.
Example – Joy Realising That She Needs Sadness in Inside Out
In Inside Out (2015), Pixar’s outstanding Oscar-winning movie, Joy spends much of the film’s runtime undermining Sadness. Joy believes that if Sadness would just go away, Riley (the adolescent whose emotional state they control) will always be happy. Which is what Joy wants (plus it means that she is in control of Riley’s emotional state).
However, shortly after the three-quarter mark, Joy gets stuck in the forgotten abyss. It is there (through a memory ball) that Joy realises that she needs Sadness in order for Riley to feel true happiness. This is a heart-rending moment and demonstrates that Joy has changed. Subsequently, Joy no longer undermines Sadness. Rather, she treats her with empathy and does all that she can to make increase her role in Riley’s psyche.
A Character Returns
The return of a character can be a major plot twist in a story and the trick to writing a brilliant chapter or scene. The return must have consequence for the plot going forwards as the main character is going to be in a better or worse situation, depending upon if the returning character is a friend or a foe.
Example 1 – When A Friend Returns
In The Two Towers, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are looking for Merry & Pippin in Fangorn Forest. But instead of finding the two hobbits, they come across a rejuvenated Gandalf. Last seen, Gandalf had been taken down and fallen into the abyss in Moria along with the Balrog, a demon from the ancient world.
Yet, he defeated the Balrog and returns to the story as a more powerful wizard. In and of itself, that is a great twist as readers could not have expected the trio to find Gandalf at the start of the chapter.
More importantly for the plot, Aragorn’s fortunes change for the better as Gandalf goes on to play a crucial role throughout the rest of the story. In The Two Towers, Gandalf rides to find the Rohirrim and bring them back in time to win the Battle of Helm’s Deep. And, in The Return of the King, Gandalf rides to Minas Tirith and marshal’s the city’s defenses after Denethor goes mad.
Example 2 – When A Foe Returns
In GoldenEye (1995), James Bond is looking for the mysterious crime syndicate leader, who goes by the name ‘Janus.’ A little over halfway through the film, after meeting with a number of people with links to Janus, Bond goes to an old Soviet relic dump outside of St Petersburg.
Within the graveyard-like eeriness, Janus emerges. And it turns out that Janus is none other than 007’s former friend, 006 – Alec Trevelyan. The twist is that Alec had supposedly died in an explosion in the opening sequence of the film.
Now, Bond learns his former friend’s true identity and motives. Thus, by the end of the scene, Bond’s situation has changed for the worse. Now, he has a real enemy on his hands, equipped with M:I-6 training. All of this means that his mission has become a lot harder.
Be Given A Choice Or An Offer
POV characters are meant to have agency. Being given a choice or an offer by another character is not the epitome of agency.
Nevertheless, once presented with a choice or an offer, the POV character has a decision to make that will have corollary for the rest of the story. In other words, his/her situation is materially different from what it was before he/she was presented with the choice or offer.
Example 1 – The Blue Pill or the Red Bill
In The Matrix (1999), Neo finds himself speaking with a mysterious man called Morpheus. Morpheus presents Neo with a (since-made famous) choice: the red and blue pills.
The red pill will show him the truth about the Matrix, and the blue pill will return him to his former life. Of course, Neo swallows the red pill and subsequently wakes up on a Morpheus’ hovercraft, Nebuchadnezzar.
Example 2 – An Offer That Can’t Be Refused
In Swordfish (2001), Stanley (Hugh Jackman) is a poor computer hacker, who is forbidden from seeing his daughter. One day, when he leaves his house, Stanley finds Ginger (Halle Berry) standing outside. Stanley doesn’t know who she is. But she offers him $100,000 just to meet with her husband, Gabriel (John Travolta).
The offer is too good for Stanley to turn down. So, he agrees to meet Gabriel. Gabriel tests Stanley on his hacking skills, and then gives him a second proposition – $10m and have his daughter back if he does some work for him. Presented with such an opportunity, Stanley agrees without really understanding the implications of his decision (which become apparent later).
Finding A Magical Object
In the fantasy genre, it is quite common for a hero (or a villain) to find a magical object, whether it is a sword, a wand, a dragon, or something else.
All writers have to make sure of is that once the protagonist acquires this magical object, his/her fortunes must change in order for the said-object to have material consequence on the chapter.
Example – The Lamp In Aladdin
In the 1992 Disney film Aladdin, the titular hero (even though he is a compulsive liar) acquires a lamp and gets stuck in the Cave of Wonders with only his monkey-friend, Apu, and a magic-carpet for company.
Thinking he is stuck in the cave forever, Aladdin rubs the lamp and lets out the Genie (voiced with extraordinary brilliance and charisma by the late Robin Williams). Subsequently, Aladdin’s fortunes change for the better as Genie helps him out of the cave and then gives him three wishes, the first of which Aladdin uses up to turn himself into a prince to woo Princess Jasmine.
Accusing a character of a crime can be the trick to writing a brilliant chapter or scene. This is because when a character is accused of (and charged with) a crime, his/her situation changes for the worse.
Often, the character’s survival is on the line. But even if the consequences are not as severe as death, the character still has some uncomfortable questions to answer.
Example 1 – Tyrion Is Accused Of Regicide
The wedding between King Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell is a majestic and extravagant occasion in A Storm of Swords/Season 4 of Game of Thrones. During the wedding feast, King Joffrey humiliates his dwarf uncle, Tyrion, in front of everyone by pouring wine over his head.
The day is going badly for Tyrion, but it gets worse. So much worse. King Joffrey eats a piece of pigeon pie and chokes to death. Immediately, Cersei (Joffrey’s mother and Tyrion’s sister) instantly points the finger at Tyrion, who she has despised since he was born, and orders her guards to arrest him for regicide.
Now, Tyrion has the nigh-on-impossible task of convincing the (kangaroo) court that he is innocent of the crime; especially, as the key judge is his father, who also despises him.
Example 2 – The Judge From The Judge
In 2014 drama, The Judge, Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr) is about to catch a flight when he learns that his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), has been accused of first-degree murder. Now, Hank has to save his stubborn father from a potential life sentence.
Getting An Injury, Hope, Suffering A Nervous Breakdown, Etc…
I am afraid that’s all for this week, folks. Next week, we shall continue on the theme of the trick to writing a brilliant chapter or scene by looking at how injuries, hope, and/or suffering a nervous breakdown, among others, can have material consequence on a story.
Until then, thank you for reading this piece on the trick to writing a brilliant chapter. Which of the above examples did you enjoy the most?