Two days ago, Rick Riordan published the House of Hades, the fourth volume in his five-book Heroes of Olympus series. This series builds on the world of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, but Heroes of Olympus feels much different from its famous predecessor. Perhaps it was because of a few new characters. Perhaps it was because of Riordan’s switch from his characteristic first person narrative to third person, meant to accommodate more narrators.
Or perhaps it was because the books suddenly lacked suspense, tension, and the irrational drive to read more that made me finish the Serpent’s Shadow in a mere day.
What would cause such a drastic shift? Why, after eight successful and gripping books (the five of Percy Jackson and the Olympians plus the three of the Kane Chronicles) would Riordan suddenly start telling bad stories? Because of his chapters.
Each book in the Heroes of Olympus series has crazily short chapters. They average around eight pages each, which isn’t bad, but many are only four pages long, followed by several more chapters from the same viewpoint. The chapters are consistently structured badly. The chapters just before viewpoint changes end on cliffhangers, as they should, but the previous chapters end on high notes and weird notes, which should never happen– the chapter should end on a plot twist to push the reader through the chapter break to the next part of the story. These chapters allow the reader to slow down and stop, putting the book down and allowing them to take a week to read the entire book. What went wrong?
One main difference between the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series’ is the presence of chapter titles. In the original series, the table of contents was often the funniest portion of the book; the chapters were always titled creatively, getting you excited about reading the book even before you had even begun. The loss of chapter titles in Heroes of Olympus was unfortunate, but hardly a reason to dislike the books… right?
But think about it. Making up chapter titles that both pertain to the chapter and make people laugh is hard. I’ve tried it before in my own novels, and never with much success. I can often make up three funny chapter titles, but not many more. Think: if all your chapters had to have funny titles, what would you do? You would reduce the number of titles as much as possible. You would combine your chapters as much as possible.
That’s what Riordan did in both Percy Jackson and the Kane Chronicles. Because he had to be funny, he condensed his many chapters into a smaller number. It made things more manageable, and made the story move along quicker. He started structuring chapters correctly simply because he was forced to by his own inability to create fifty clever titles.
What happened in Heroes of Olympus? Because he needed the chapter title space to show which character was narrating this chapter, he decided to drop the funny chapter titles. Suddenly, his chapters breed like rabbits. He has over fifty per book where in the past he only had twenty. Not only that, but they’re all short and one scene long, less in some cases. And simultaneously, he starts losing suspense.
He relied on his instincts without knowing it, forced into doing the right thing by his inability to come up with clever titles. Suddenly, when he doesn’t have to make up titles, his instincts start failing him. He doesn’t even notice it. He’s just prattling on, writing chapter break after chapter break, until he loses all his readers in the doldrums of sheer boredom. If he continues to do this, he’s going to lose his fans. If his Norse series (scheduled for 2015 or thereabouts) doesn’t have funny titles, I have a feeling it’s going to flop.
So what’s the point of this? Is this a cautionary tale about the values of chapter titles? Or is it simply an argument for why not to read the book? Neither. It illustrates the inconstancy of instinct.
I wrote my first couple novels on instinct alone. They didn’t turn out too badly, which was a relief, but they didn’t do that well either. The first, I’m almost afraid to reread for fear of what mistakes I made– I’m stuck rewriting the second because there were too many flaws to keep anything. Some things worked for me. Some things didn’t. Such is the nature of writing by instinct.
What allows you to get past your instincts, then? What increases your chance of getting it right the first time, and each consecutive time as you edit? What allows you to actually write a good novel at all? Are you just going to try, try, and try again until your instincts work for you and you write the next Harry Potter? Or are you going to figure out what’s wrong and fix it the first time so you don’t have to fix it again the next time?
This, my friends, is the reason for knowing what you’re doing. Rick Riordan wrote by instinct, and luckily, his instincts were good. Once he removed the one thing that kept his instincts working, he failed to write compelling stories. He didn’t know what worked and what didn’t, and definitely didn’t know what would cause him to crash and burn. Nor did he actually notice what was wrong with his stories.
Nor is he listening to me right now.
But, if you figure out what works and what doesn’t, you’ll have the ability to fix your mistakes and keep those fixes in place as you fix other mistakes. You won’t build yourself a crutch and then chop up the crutch to make firewood. All it takes is a little research and the ability to notice your own flaws. If you don’t, you aren’t going to make it.
Instincts might make it quicker to write a story, but when you find yourself editing it, if you don’t have really good instincts, you’re going to be lost. If you learn as much as you can about your craft, however, you can bypass instincts altogether and do well consistently. It’s your choice.