When Instincts Fail

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.

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29 thoughts on “When Instincts Fail

  1. I completely agree. My siblings and I all agree than The Heroes of Olympus is seriously lacking. I started reading The House of Hades the other day and haven’t gotten very far. Nor am I very enticed to pick it up like I was with the Percy Jackson series. It just seems kind of meh and bland and even my old favorite characters seem like nothing more than whiny, buffed up stereotypes with the names of the characters I love. Not to mention all the dialogue feels very repetitive. I kind of miss the Percy Jackson I grew up with.

  2. A very insightful post. Loved it. But I’ve been worrying about my own chapters because though they don’t end in conflict resolution, they don’t end in cliffhangers either.

    But I figure I can just re-adjust the chapter breaks while editing. I’m numbering my chapters and not giving then titles (especially not funny ones. My book isn’t supposed to be funny), so it shouldn’t be too painful. Hopefully.

    This post has given me much to think about. Hehe.

  3. Excellent post. And I suppose that I too have written on instinct. A year ago, I knew next to nothing about story structure.

    So, I have a question. It’s better when chapters end with cliffhangers, yes, but is it necessary for absolutely everyone of them to end with one?

    1. Not necessarily, but very few should lack them. But remember: cliffhangers are one thing, plot twists are another. You can have a plot twist without a cliffhanger, and vice versa. But even so, you can end a chapter without either cliffhanger or plot twist. It most commonly happens near the end of the book, when everything is wrapping up, or in the beginning of the book, because the pace hasn’t picked up yet, but probably shouldn’t do it in the middle or near the low point. Everything should be moving quickly there.

  4. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been reading House of Hades far slower than I’ve read a lot of other books lately. I was just blaming my busy schedule at first, but I think it might have something to do with the fact that, although I’m interested, there isn’t that suspense that keeps me reading for hours on end.

    Huh.

    I keep trying to figure out why he got rid of the chapter titles. Yes, I get that he needed the space to say which character is narrating next. But in Kane Chronicles, he had both—and in that trilogy, he needed to say who was narrating next, since it was first person. But, in third person…? I’ve read many books that have several third-person narrators and there’s no chapter heading to say who’ll narrate next. Also, since House of Hades doesn’t seem to have as much of a pattern for who narrates next, I really don’t think it’s necessary to state who’ll go next. Alas, it’s too late to add in the chapter titles now.

    I’m really hoping the Norse series has the chapter titles… I always, always loved those.

    1. Indeed. I just read the Alloy of Law, and one of the biggest things I learned was how to make sure the reader knows who’s narrating each chapter: just have the first name mentioned in any action or anything be theirs. Honestly, if Riordan had just done that, he wouldn’t have had to do the big names in the chapter headings. You’re absolutely right about the Kane Chronicles– he did it all, and had to do it all. With Heroes of Olympus, he didn’t have to at all.

      I agree. If he omits them again, he’s not going to recover his fame easily.

  5. I don’t think I ever noticed the length of the chapters in the Heroes of Olympus until you brought it up. In most cases, I actually prefer to read books with shorter chapters because it feels less tedious to pump out a few five or six-page chapters before bed than to slog through a thirty page chapter because you want to know how it ends. When done right, shorter chapters can also have a strong emotional impact. But in the case of The Heroes of Olympus books, his short chapters didn’t do the book justice.

    After having read your last post about Riordan’s plot lines, I started thinking more about what made his first Greek series different from his second. I noticed that in several of the Percy Jackson books, the setting and plot line was interesting because it was following the path of a mythological setting (like when they traveled through the Sea of Monsters or through the Labyrinth) and met creatures based in that setting instead of traveling across the country (a familiar setting to most of us) to the place of the final battle. The original series was more varied in plot even if it did follow the loose formula, and I think that made a big difference.

    Great post!

    1. Indeed, you’re right– although it must be noted that the Sea of Monsters and the Labyrinth have much the same quality as Rome and Greece, as they are explored in the Heroes of Olympus series. But you’re right, plot variation did occur in the original series, even within the formula. Thanks for the thoughts.

  6. I’d noticed the shortness of the chapters in House of Hades, and there was at least one time I thought “There’s no reason these chapters have to be separate. They’d be fine combined into one.”

    All in all, I did like HoH, especially some of the character development, but I was reading it to enjoy it, not to critique it. I thought the ending was a little disappointing in that it wasn’t as big a cliff hanger as Mark of Athena, and I was kinda expecting something big again.

    But I will agree that PJ+O was better.

      1. Yes, absolutely. His first sentences tend to feel like jokes, and often they don’t work like that. One problem is that he has over fifty chapters to think up first lines for, which means he has to stretch for jokes. It’s the same as the chapter titles.

      2. Agreed. Personally, I thought it felt forced some of the time. The humor from Leo’s POV was the best.

        Speaking of forced, Sister Dearest mentioned tonight that she felt there was a lack of conflict in this one. After further discussion, we thought that the monster attacks felt forced, or contrived. Like they were just there because it needed to be hard for the charries to get information.

      3. *This is Gwen commenting off the wrong machine because her hotel’s internet is evil.*

        Huh, I guess I didn’t really notice until I read this last one. Still working on my critical reading skills.

  7. Ooh, I just finished reading this book a couple of days ago. I think House of Hades is the best of the HoO series yet. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
    But hey, maybe my opinion is biased. Maybe I think that because Leo finally got a love interest, and a decent one.
    Maybe I think that because Jason and Piper–especially Piper–didn’t get too much attention, thank god.

    But then again, I like the role that Riordan has given to Frank. I used to see Frank as this…person who’s there but you don’t know why. Both Frank and Hazel have failed to leave any impression on me at all, but HoH did change that for me a little, at least in Frank’s case.

    In itself, HoH is mediocre, but compared to its prequels, it’s very good.

  8. (SPOILERS)
    Oh, right, I forgot to add: the final battle scene in HoH between that witch lady and Hazel was…lame. I really expected more. Did you feel it was lacking in any way? I thought the big climatic battle was a disappointment in the extreme.

    But Nico…that was BRILLIANT. Riordan has done a god job with characterizing Frank and Nico (and even Leo, to some extent–because Calypso changes Leo a bit).

    1. Yes. House of Hades was probably one of the best of HoO, but that isn’t saying much. Most of the new people had pretty good character arcs, and yes, Nico was phenomenal. For some reason, however, Riordan referred to the book as the Percabeth book, while I felt the Percabeth vibe had died an ignominious and obscure death in that book.

      1. Yeah. I think Percabeth died when HoO began. I feel like the Percy/Annabeth arc is too forced so now I hate it -.-

        Riordan oblierated my OTP, Leo/Reyna. You can’t imagine how devastated I was. But Calypso…she’s alright. Not irritating, so that’s good.

        I wonder what’s going to happen with Nico. Looking forward to some interesting Percy-and-Nico interactions.

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