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Your Prewriting Recipe for Mock Turtle Soup

frenchheadshot2Okay, Alice. You’ve been doing your homework like a good kiddo: Your previously nameless Story has a working title, you’ve puzzled out a satisfying story question, and your sparkling new short synopsis awaits occasional perusal as you write. All of this fresh-baked goodness must mean that you’re ready to sink your teeth into:

The Mock Turtle Soup Table of Contents

The Mock Table of Contents is a chapter list with titles attached to it. Like the short synopsis, it gives you a clarifying overview of your story. It’s a reference point you can use time after time as you write your first draft — and even as you work through 2nd, 4th, or 5th drafts.

Unlike the short synopsis, the Mock ToC distills individual chapters down to their simplest essence. The most basic ingredients look like this:

Chapter 1. Big Event

  • the unusual happening that catapults your character into the story

Chapter 2.
Chapter 3.
Chapter 4. First Plot Point

  • an event that increases tension, gets your character farther into the action, sends the story in a new direction

Chapter 5.
Chapter 6.
Chapter 7. Midpoint
Chapter 8.
Chapter 9.
Chapter 10. Second Plot Point
Chapter 11.
Chapter 12.
Chapter 13.
Chapter 14. Climax

  • the most exciting part of your story; the whole story points toward this

Chapter 15. Denouement

  • resolution (how it all turns out)

mockturtleNow, this is an arbitrary number of chapters. Your story might require fewer chapters or more. If you’re writing children’s fiction, maybe you’ll only need ten chapters. If you’re writing epic fantasy, you might need thirty. On the other hand, you might write an epic with chapters that are 10,000 words long, in which case maybe *you* will be the writer who requires but ten chapters. But I wouldn’t recommend it. ; )

So far, my published novels have fit into the 15-25 chapters category. There are no categories, really; I just made that up. But say I do 17 chapters with roughly 5,000 words each. That’s 85,000 words, a comfortably-sized novel. Some writers prefer their chapters be approximately the same length. Me, I like to mix it up a little — 4,500 words here, 7,000 words there. Some readers like same-length chapters; others prefer the variety. Personal preference rules here.

But we’re not going into detail about chapter lengths today. That was just a little side dish for you.

Chapter Titles

Part of the main course are the Mock ToC’s chapter titles. In brief, each chapter title describes what that chapter is about. You can use the chapter title as a summary, or you can just mention the main event(s) of the chapter. One of the first times I ever wrote a Mock ToC, my chapter titles looked like this:

Mock ToC for Tapped Out (working title) by Courtney Cantrell

CHAPTER 1 — In the Secluded Nook
CHAPTER 2 — The Royal Family
CHAPTER 3 — Dilemmas of a Princess
CHAPTER 4 — Wizard’s Pets
CHAPTER 5 — Preparations
CHAPTER 6 — Wedding Bells
CHAPTER 7 — Unexpected Companions
CHAPTER 8 — Of Travels and Taverns
CHAPTER 9 — Bonding
CHAPTER 10 — Thief/Pursuit
CHAPTER 11 — Sacrifices at the Dock
CHAPTER 12 — Dungeons of the Heart
CHAPTER 13 — Changing Minds
CHAPTER 14 — Reunion

You don’t need to know the story to see that I’ve boiled these chapter titles down to a single concept per chapter. Sometimes this concept is a location (“In the Secluded Nook”), sometimes it relates to characters (“Dilemmas of a Princess”), sometimes it’s a particular event (“Bonding”). In each case, the chapter title is just enough to focus me on the central theme of that chapter. That central theme keeps me on track as I write, so that I don’t stray into the terrible realms of Distraction and Writer’s Block.

By the way, I’m considering taking the “Mock” out of this ToC and actually using most of these titles in the finished story. I’ve never written a novel with real chapter titles before, and I think this one would lend itself well to that. So, you see, it’s possible to repurpose the Mock ToC for your final manuscript. As the indomitable Bob Ross so often said, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” This applies to Mock ToCs as well as oil paintings.

But Tapped Out (working title) is a simple, lighthearted fantasy with a simple, straightforward plot. For a meatier story, I need some meatier chapter titles. Here’s a good example:

Mock ToC for Stains of Grace (Demons of Saltmarch, #3) (first draft; paranormal fantasy) by Courtney Cantrell

1. Anne Makes A Phone Call (Driving)
2. For We Are Many in Des Moines (Do Not Disturb; Nora Shows Up)
3. 1000 Miles Or One Step (Diner Diversion)
4. Showdown In A Rhode Island Driveway (Nora Shows Up, Redux; Owin’s Relief)
5. The Baneguild (Anne Talks; Thomas Repeats Himself)
6. In The Gazebo (Peter’s Dreams, Owin & Anne, Daniel & Peter & Thomas)
7. Rebekah Makes A Phone Call, Peter Reads the Colors, Gina Casts A Grayscale
8. Down The Rabbit Hole (Wounded Gadrell Helps)
9. The Zombie Apocalypse (Saltmarch Is Really Screwed Up)
10. Of Dismembered Zombies and Unexpected Temptations
11. Of Flight and Finding Lodgings
12. You Shall Know The Truth (Thomas’s Confession, Redux; Pol Pays A Visit)
13. Colors And Deception (Peter Seeks Reading Material; Degeneration; Your Mom Goes to College)
14. Save The Clocktower! (Seirim & Dante; Down the Rabbit-Hole, Redux)
15. Return To Innocence

Even in its first draft, Stains of Grace was a more complex story, so I needed more complex titles for clearer reference points as I worked. Again, I used concepts, events, and characters to anchor me.

But this time, I put extra reminders in parentheses. The published Stains contains no chapter titles, but some of these could well have made the final cut: “The Baneguild,” “Rebekah Makes a Phone Call,” “Down the Rabbit Hole,” “Colors and Deception,” “Return to Innocence.” But of course I wouldn’t have included the parenthetical remarks. “Your Mom Goes to College,” while amusing to me, wouldn’t really fit the tone of the story.

To Sum Up

Consider a useful number of chapters. Phrase your chapter titles around each chapter’s central theme/event or main character action. If you want to take the “mock” out, craft each title for final manuscript purposes. Make the Mock ToC work for you.

So, there’s your recipe for mock turtle soup. Eat, write, and be merry!

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