Chapter Structure with Walter M Miller Jr.
In speaking about structure, few novels dazzle like A Canticle to Leibowitz, and so I thought it would be nice to look at that structure on one of the prominent levels: the chapter. Beware, spoilers ahead! Well, at least spoilers for the first chapter since largely we will be speaking about plot. But the first chapter is lovely, so I understand if you don’t want to ruin it.
Novels are one of those amorphous structures. Some people say it’s one thing, others say it’s another, and ultimately it’s probably both and more. What it comes down to (what it seems always to come down to with novel writing) is to do what you can to cobble something cohesive together, no matter the strengths or weaknesses of your approach.
So what can we do to cobble together a strategy? The best way I’ve found is to look at other people’s chapters.
One of those seminal sci-fi classics, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. really is required reading. It first appeared in the mid-to-late fifties as a series of novellas published in Fantasy and Science Fiction and was published in 1959 after a little bit of expansion. This publication schedule is one of the things that gives it its unique structure. The book sprung from the author’s guilt and anger at his participation in the bombing of Monte Cassino monastery in WWII, resulting in a work just spilling with affect.
Chapter structures really run the gamut. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez designs chapters that take huge thematic arcs spanning over years or decades, drawing their cohesion largely from the way the summary weaves through the events, manufacturing structure wholesale (perhaps I’ll have to do that next time!). As you’ll see, Canticle takes a significantly different route to the same result, although it carries widely by chapter in my chosen story.
Following we’ll take a look at one of most cohesive chapters, the first.
Canticle‘s first chapter opens like with this:
This is the sort of sentence that I, at least (and I think many other writers), recognize fairly immediately as an organizational tool. I’ve taken to calling it an “Occasion” but I’ve seen other names for it as well. It’s this that justifies the chapter’s existence, that makes it special, that signifies how it will make the story move forward. The occasion is not always made clear in this direct a way, but it can be often useful to do so in first chapters, since that chapter cannot be riding off of any previous information or any previous suspense.
But this sentence also does something else: it provides a neat, two part outline, a to do list of sorts. 1: discover the blessed documents, and 2: the pilgrim with the girded loins must appear.
As a further comment on this section (although perhaps I’m reading too far into it), it’s interesting that these events are listed in the order opposite of how they will occur (maybe this immediately destabilizes you–you’re instantly in need of doing a small equation, instantly engaged. It seems at least, to have some momentum to it). So here, at least, is an outline of the run-in with the Pilgrim. I’ve separated the paragraphs out into arcs, each of which involves a desire or intent and obstacles for Francis to struggle against.
Obstacle: the Pilgrim is too far away.
Paragraphs 2 – 10, mostly world building and details about the Pilgrim to set up conflict
Arc 2. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim.
Obstacle: He has taken a vow of silence and wishes to uphold the law of his faith.
Paragraphs 11 – 17, he fails at finding answers but succeeds at remaining silent.
Arc 3. Intent: to build a structure for safety at night.
Obstacle: It’s grueling hard work.
Paragraphs 18 – 26, which return to alternating between world building and setting up the next conflict
Arc 4. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim
Obstacle: He still wants to uphold his vow of silence.
Paragraphs 27 -35, in which he fails at keeping silent but succeeds at getting some answers (exit Pilgrim)
Arc 5. Intent: go back to building structure
Paragraphs 36 – 37, A Brief Interlude
Arc 6. Intent: Explore the pit revealed by the Pilgrim
Obstacle: it’s too small to fit down; also, FEAR (high chance of rabid animals down there)
Paragraphs 38 – 44, Francis fails to face his fear
Arc 7. Intent: back to building his structure
Obstacle: grueling hard work; also, distracted by the possibilities of the pit
Paragraphs 45 – 48
Arc 8. Intent: Clear way into pit
Obstacle: a bunch of rocks and boulders
Paragraphs 49 – 52, he succeeds in clearing it
Arc 9. Intent: Explore the pit
Paragraphs 53 – 56
A few things I immediately noticed.
First, there’s a nice balance to the arcs–they seem to switch back and forth between arcs that pursue the plot full-speed and arcs that rock back into the everyday, allowing suspense and mystery to build. The latter also give much needed pauses for world-building. There’s also this almost mechanical, finely tuned balance to the conflicts–he chases his intent with a couple strategies, fails and gives up, but then tries a second time and succeeds. These are try-fail cycles, of course, that oft-spoken-of tool, but they look a little different than I’ve seen because there are basically two complete tries full of micro-attempts. Also, the try-fail cycles with the Pilgrim have a lot of tension because succeeding in one way causes him to fail in another.
This little outline I’ve made, seen without the organizing occasion, would come across as pretty disorderly. The cohesiveness of this chapter is not subtle–it depends totally on knowing the trajectory of the chapter: this pilgrim is going to lead him to a set of blessed documents. Knowing that allows us to pick out what’s important and forget what isn’t. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice one last thing.
This outline does not end with the finding of the documents. In fact, the chapter ends with the following words:
“The novice stared at the sign in dismay. Its meaning was plain enough. He had unwittingly broken into the abode (deserted, he prayed) of not just one but fifteen of the dreadful beings [Fallouts]! He groped for his phial of holy water” (17).
This chapter ends on a pretty suspenseful cliffhangar. We get an implication of danger, but we know he’s going to go down there because the first sentence told us so. We can already start to build the next arc in our minds. His intent will be to search the abode, and his obstacle will to risk injury. Will he have to fail at one of those things to succeed at the other?
We are anticipating this in these final moments of the chapter, partially because of the opening.
It may be more accurate to call this a half-structure. In one chapter we’ve been given half of the occasion, and made to anticipate the second half, which comes in the second chapter. This is probably my biggest takeaway, as that usage of occasion is different than what I’m used to. But also, the structure relies on the balance of the try fail cycles and the clarity of intention and obstacle.
All of these things come together to form a chapter that, if not elegant or subtle, is still enthralling.
What do you think of the outline? Does it bring any other stories or scenes to mind? For those of you who’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz, is this reflected in any of the later chapters, or is this strategy particularly first-chapter-ish?