Every now and then a book catches fire. Everyone is reading it, talking about it: The Da Vinci Code, The Kite Runner, Life of Pi, Fifty Shades of Grey, Wild. For a good few years, Stieg Larson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was that book. I'd wander through an airport and spot hundreds of copies in every concourse, the fluorescent-yellow cover glowing in everyone's hand.
I wanted to understand its popularity—and I wanted to figure out how a book 672 pages long could seem so compulsively readable. So I read it in a flash, and then I read it again, this time with a pen and a yellow legal tablet, outlining the structure. I paid particular attention to trouble. Emotional, physical, financial, familial, professional trouble. Mikael Blomkvist's reputation has been slandered—he's experiencing legal and financial issues—he's sleeping with a married woman—he's on the rocks with his daughter—he's battling isolation and the elements on a cold northern island—he's chasing down a labyrinthine mystery—his life is in danger—and on and on. His point of view is balanced out by Lisbeth Salendar's. She is weighed down with troubles of her own and eventually their storylines thread together when they become lovers, partners.
I began to color code the major problems the characters faced—blue, black, red, green, yellow, pink, purple—and to track page numbers. Larson would introduce a blue problem on page 25, return to it on 78, 169, 240, 381, and so on, each time ratcheting up the tension and complicating things further. Interspliced with the blue problems were red problems, pink problems, a kaleidoscope of trouble, ever-changing.
I have come to call these flaming chainsaws. Your success as a storyteller has to do with your ability to juggle them. Every time the flaming chainsaws pass through your hands, they gain speed, become more perilous, until at last they are extinguished.
The more characters you have, the bigger the book, the more flaming chainsaws. Let's say the average novel has seven. One might be romantic (somebody chasing somebody for a date, a kiss, a relationship), another might be financial or professional (somebody getting fired or hunting for a promotion or hoping to keep their bakery afloat), another familial (a divorce is imminent, a child is getting into trouble at school), another physical (somebody can't stop eating or blows out a knee or gets diagnosed with cancer).
I wrote four failed novels before I finally figured out the long form. I cannot list off all the reasons these manuscripts turned to dust in my hands, but one of my major errors was this: I treated chapters like short stories, introducing and resolving trouble in fifteen pages. I guess my arms got tired. I guess I wasn't much of a juggler. I guess my flaming chainsaws ran out of gas too quickly.
The containment, the stand-aloneness of my chapters gave my books a stop-start quality that destroyed any sense of momentum. Take a look at any novel—how about The Island of Doctor Moreau by HG Wells—and you can see how the chapters build toward some point of tension and then cut away. Chapter one ends with our sick, starved narrator floating in a dingy after eight days at sea! Chapter two ends with the mystery of what waits on the deck of the schooner that rescues him! Chapter three ends with an argument between the doctor and the captain. Chapter four ends with the appearance of the doctor's hideously deformed assistant (who gives our narrator nightmares)! Chapter five ends with the captain throwing our narrator off the ship! If you think about it, isn't there always an exclamation mark hidden in the white space? It's the equivalent of the commercial break or "Dun-dun-dun!"
I'm not the first to say this is the golden era of television. HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX are all airing narratives that don't stand alone episode by episode, but build throughout the season, cumulative stories that track like novels. Study their scripts and you'll shortcut your way to an outline, the equivalent of my legal tablet study of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Oftentimes, after watching an episode of The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, I'll read the script and slash through it with highlighters, feather it with sticky notes, paying particular attention to the way the showrunners manage trouble—through each act—through each episode—through each season.
When sketching out your early plans for a book or when revising the draft of a manuscript, do the same. Identify the flaming chainsaws and make sure your hands and pages are busy with the constant, rotating threat of them.