I learned one my favorite writing “tricks” from Charles Dickens, who often published his novels in installments. He used chapter headings, or, what I call headlines. Open OLIVER TWIST to Chapter 6 and read: Oliver, Being Goaded by the Taunts of Noah, Rouses into Action, and Rather Astonishes Him. Or Chapter 32: Of the Happy Life Oliver Began to Lead with his Kind Friends. But page forward to Chapter 33: Wherein the Happiness of Oliver and his Friends, Experiences a Sudden Check. And near novel’s end: The Pursuit and Escape.
When I’m writing my first draft, I aim for scene headlines. If it’s not a strain, I use a noun, a verb, and an object–emphasis on action toward a goal. I’ll make up an example right now: Jack Confronts Maggie About Old Flames–and Manages to Raise a Ghost. It’s a quick way of reminding myself of my characters’ objectives (see previous post) and the actions they will take to achieve those objectives. Note: This also works when you are writing your way through the first draft of your memoir. You can use one- or two-word headlines to evoke a specific image that, at least for you, is charged with an emotion. Old Oak Bridge, for example, or Swimming Pool. These may or may not end up in the final draft.
Finally, these headlines are an easy way to remind yourself of your progress through your draft. They work as signposts, letting you know where you’ve come from in the story, pointing the direction forward. They can also be used as an informal outline of the story. Recently, to touch in again with my almost-finished novel, I simply reviewed the headlines.
One more way to use headlines: If you are mid-draft and needing direction, try reading a scene, chapter, scene, and glean the headline after the fact.
To try: As you dive into your day’s writing, try assigning a headline to the next scene or chapter.