Chapter Openings: Orson Scott Card’s Occasionally-Appropriate Trick

A gimmick is a dishonest trick. As such, it’s usually not a good way to gain readers’ trust or engage them your book’s chapter openings. Except …. for when it is.

Gimmicks in fiction take many forms, but most simply boil down to flashy intrusions—such as:

  • Multiple fonts to indicate different points of view
  • Strange narrative forms, such as newspaper articles or telephone transcriptions

Used poorly, these things only distract from the story by pulling the reader out of his suspension-of-disbelief bubble like a flashing neon sign that says, “Look at me! Look how clever I am to think of such a nifty little trick!”

How Orson Scott Card Rocks the “Gimmick” in His Chapter Openings

However, very occasionally, you run across an author who not only make such aberrations work, but uses them to great effect. One such writer is science-fiction legend Orson Scott Card, whose Ender series provides a perfect example.

All the chapter openings in this series begins with an exchange of emails between characters (or, in a few books, telepathic conversations). The emails don’t often directly affect the chapter to follow. Usually, they serve merely as a look behind the scenes at the characters’ motivations or observations.

As such, they could easily have drifted into self-indulgent speechifying. Instead, Card brilliantly used them to subtly advance his plot—and even more importantly to draw his readers nearer to the characters.

Asa Butterfield Ender Wiggin Ender's Game Orson Scott Card

Asa Butterfield in Ender’s Game (2013), directed by Gavin Hood, produced by Lionsgate.

2 Ways to Successfully Use a “Gimmick” in Your Chapter Openings

How did Card do this?

1. Don’t Draw Extra Attention to a Gimmick

Card didn’t treat his unique chapter openings as gimmicks.

Remember: resort to unusual forms only to convey necessary information that couldn’t have been communicated as effectively any other way.

2. Don’t Take Your Gimmick Too Seriously

If anything, Card’s unorthodox chapter openings allow his characters to figuratively let their hair down. All the snarky, funny, smart, and sometimes scary stuff they couldn’t say in the course of the plot itself comes out in the letters. The emails abound with the characters’ personalities.

For example, from Chapter 5 of Ender’s Game:

“You have my admiration. Breaking an arm–that was a master stroke.”

“That was an accident.”

“Really? And I’ve already commended you in your official report.”

Colonel Graff Harrison Ford Ender's Game Orson Scott Card

Harrison Ford in Ender’s Game (2013), directed by Gavin Hood, produced by Lionsgate.

The result? Card not only masterfully avoids impeding his readers’ suspension of disbelief, he also creates a special little treat that keeps readers looking forward to each of his chapter openings.

Obviously, this is not a technique to be used in 99% of books. But be aware of its possibilities just in case you happen to writing that 1%!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What have you found successful in hooking readers into your chapter openings? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I was terrified the whole time that the book was going to fall off the shelf and knock you cold and we’d spend the rest of the video staring in shock at the remaining spines!

    More great stuff in the content, though. I am reminded of the openings to each of David Eddings’s GOOD series: The “Belgariad/Mallorean” and the “Elenium/Tamuli”. Particularly in the Belgariad and Mallorean, the prologues to each book cover the histories of the worlds and the conflicts between the gods from the point of view of each race– usually these are excerpts of the race’s holy book, but in one case the evil god actually writes one. (Well, sort of. It’s taken directly from the holy “Book of Torak” that he himself dictated. The rest are third person racial histories.)

    Being that I love history, even fictional histories such as these, I really liked the technique. Unfortunately, by the time he started the “Dreamers”, Eddings was becoming a caricature of himself and these openings to the books were reduced to the level of gimmicks as you suggested.

    Thanks again for an insightful bit of tip action, Katie. I’m retweeting you as fast as you post!

    CR

  2. Well, you have to admit, the book knocking me cold would have been interesting! :p Thanks so much for the RTs.

  3. As always, another fabulous vlog lesson! Sorry I haven’t been by in a while. I’ll have to catch up on your posts – I don’t want to miss any treasures. 🙂

  4. Well, that’s the good thing about blog posts. They’re always there to read whenever you have time. Thanks for stopping by, Shannon!

  5. Did you remove the mouse clip? I thought that was so funny and loved the Eye of the Tiger twist.

    Sorry I don’t comment, but I have enjoyed all of your vlogs!

  6. Wow, you’re fast. The mouse post was just up momentarily last night, so I could check it. It won’t go live until next Monday.

  7. Hmmm… I haven’t read Orson Scott Card, but am looking to expand my repertoire of science fiction… So, it sounds like his Ender’s series may be a good reentry to the genre. 🙂

    As for gimmicks, I love the way that Lisa Lutz does her Spellman series (the fourth book just came out this week and I can’t wait to get my hands on it!) The books are incredibly funny, and the fact that the main character talks to the reader about previous books (now available in paperback!) and uses footnotes makes them somewhat gimmicky, but it’s so unusual that as a writer, I found it endearing–and completely fitting with the POV character’s personality.

  8. I’ve noticed, too, that some of your posts have been listed in my blog roll but not available when I came hunting for them. I was freaking out about an alien invasion wiping out our intarwebs… well, I sort of do that anyway. Glad to know it was just you test posting.

    On an aside, Katie, your web cam has a piece of dust or something on the lens. I wouldn’t comment, but it’s… um… it’s right over your nose. I keep expecting you to go crosseyed on it or something. Your content is so good that I don’t want anything to distract from it.

    Crap, is that something a guy can tell a girl? I never got the manual, so I never learned whether I’m supposed to point out the green thing in a lady’s teeth or stuff like that… does this even fall into that category?

  9. Orson Scott Card ranks amongst my top five favorite authors. Ender’s Game was my introduction to his work, but it was the sequel Speaker for the Dead that blew me away. I’m not too fond of the other sequels (Xenocide and Children of the Mind), but the parallel series Ender’s Shadow is excellent.

  10. I don’t know why Blogger bumps posts with old dates to the top of its Blog Reader. Frustrating, I agree.

    The speck is actually a chip in the camera lens – and, I agree, it’s very distracting! I’ll be sitting on the other side of the screen next time. :p

  11. I was also looking for the mouse post to leave a comment – a memorable way to illustrate the principles of storytelling!

    But to this post… a great point, as always. Your points about Card’s use of emails reminds me of John Whitbourn, who used a history exam paper to describe an alternate world. Instead of having to shoehorn in a lot of back story, or write a dull prologue, he condensed all the changes in the world of his story to the degree exam paper for an Oxford college (itself named after Oliver Cromwell). Economical and stylish use of a gimmick.

  12. Funny, I JUST read Ender’s Game for the first time a few weeks ago. It’s a brilliant book. And I agree with everything you said.

  13. @dirtywhitecandy: I actually *love* gimmicks when they work. If they’re fresh and amusing, they can transform a story. Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange by Susannah Clark is another book that did it well.

    @Kat: I’m on an Orson Scott Card kick right. Reading everything of his I can get my hands on.

  14. But what about the green thing?

  15. Yep, that’s it. It just glints green sometimes.

  16. All right, just to clarify… you know by “green thing” I was referencing my earlier comment about “Do I tell a lady there’s a green thing stuck in her teeth, or what?”

    Clarity. I must strive for greater clarity.

  17. Okay, now I’m confused. :p I was thinking you meant the “green thing” and the speck were the same. So, now I’m wondering if I really had something in my teeth!

  18. Made you look!

    BTW: I love Ender’s Game, but have had a really hard time getting into the sequels for some reason. I’ve tried them off and on for a couple of years. I was really impressed by his book of short stories on dread, though. I forget the name, but I love his essay in the beginning: “Dread is the fear you feel when you realize the oncoming headlights are in your lane. It’s the emotion that runs through you when you hear the window open downstairs and realize that you are home alone.”

    Wonderful book. I highly recommend it. You probably already know the title, but in the event I can recall it I’ll post it later if you need it.

  19. Well, next time I’ll mumble with my mouth closed as much as possible, just to be sure. 😉

    I loved Ender’s Game‘s direct sequel Speaker for the Dead, but not the two that followed. I haven’t read any of his short stories yet. Still working my way through his books.

  20. I wouldn’t have thought to try what Card does in his book Ender’s Game, but it sounds like he really pulled it off–and then some!

  21. I don’t recommend gimmicks, because they’re much easier to get wrong than right. But if you can pull them off, they’re brilliant!

  22. I love Ender’s Game, but like Christopher had trouble getting into the sequels. Good points though!

    I must confess I used a gimmick in my last story to start chapters, but it showed an important contrast. In the story, the narrator of a “novel” takes over and starts messing things up. So the intros to the chapters are supposed to be excerpts from how the “novel” would have originally read without his interference.

    I haven’t sent it out to my friends yet to critique, but I hope it’s a successful gimmick!

  23. Sounds like a great idea. I’m intrigued!

  24. Katie, I found the title of the Orson Scott Card book with the short stories. The introduction alone is worth the read: “Maps in a Mirror.” http://www.hatrack.com/osc/books/maps.shtml

    @Jenn: That actually sounds like an interesting gimmick. If I may be so bold, the word “gimmick” is dismissive language for what may actually be an effective literary device. Terry Pratchett said once, “Cliche’s are the hammers and nails in the toolbox of literary convention.” Cliche’s might be considered gimmicks taken to excess, but there is a reason fog is thick enough to “cut with a knife”

    I’m actually really interested in your idea, particularly for a humor novel.

  25. Thanks! I’ll look for the book.

  26. Do you have a kindle or other eBook reader, Katie? If so, and if I may email you, I have a present for you.

  27. @K.M.: Thanks!

    @Christopher: I’ve never actually seen fog thick enough to cut with a knife. Or thick enough that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. I’m beginning to doubt such fog exists…more’s the pity.

    Anyway, maybe “gimmick” is used because more often than not, that type of literary device is ineffective. Sure, there are a few gems out there, but all in all, the rest are just trying too hard and not succeeding. (Only a theory for how the term caught on, with no bearing on what out there really works.)

    And I don’t know how humorous my story will end up being. I’m still re-writing it, but humor and silliness are not my fortes.

  28. @Christopher: No e-reader, unfortunately. I have the Kindle app on my iTouch, but it only reads books downloaded directly off Amazon. I can’t upload anything I haven’t purchased. Thanks, though!

    @Jenn: When such devices fail, we call them “gimmicks.” When they succeed, they’re just effective tools.

  29. Aw rats. I was going to loan you a copy of “Maps” under the condition that you delete it after you read it. That’s the only way I can justify trading eBooks.

  30. Thanks, I appreciate the thought! Hopefully, one of my libraries will have a copy.

  31. BTW, Katie, I got around the Kindle App restriction by not using it. Instead I use a good PDF reader and stick my PDF books on Google Docs. As long as I have internet I have access, and I keep one or two on the iPod in case I’m somewhere without wifi.

  32. Smart. I sometimes upload pdfs to my website server so I can read on my iTouch on the go.

  33. This video is great! I’ve been a little apprehensive about a story I’ working on, where the characters exchange messages online. Since the story is based in some part on people who meet online, I felt there needed to be some inclusion of their correspondences.

    Your post makes things a lot clearer for me.

  34. Yup, convince your reader and you can do just about anything!
    Great Vid, KM!

  35. @Noelani: If it’s inherent to your story, then I can’t see it being a problem. So long as you’re letting the story dictate its demands, you’re safe!

    @Kathryn: Exactly. If you can just worm past the defenses of their suspension of disbelief bubble, the horizons are wide open!

  36. Annie Lynn says

    I read a book once where every chapter started with a letter one of the characters wrote, and I KNOW I always looked forward to reading the letter.

  37. When done right, gimmicks like this not only further the story, but they’re like a special little treat shared between author and reader.

  38. Oh, this was very interesting! Specially since I´m planning to use a diary´s entrances in my WIP but to make it more interesting for my readers I want to put the not the way it is written but as a flashback from the writer´s POV.

    The emails you mentioned sound like what Alison Pearson does in I don´t know how she does it (And I really don´t know how she made me laugh that much!)

    As you said, well used it is an incredible resource.

  39. Even if we end up deciding not to use letter/diary/email openers (as I’ve done on more than one occasion) just writing them out is an informative exercise. We can discover all sorts of interesting tidbits about our characters.

  40. Orson Scott Card? Funny, just yesterday I got his Ender Series, and was thinking of starting to read it after finishing my current book. Now, I will be able to keep my eyes open to study these facts more thoroughly 🙂
    Thanks

  41. What a great idea! Darynda Jones’ Charlie Daividson grim reaper series does something to – little quips at the beginning, like chapter headers, but not quite. I don’t know that they move the plot forward quite like you say OSC does, but they are great humor breaks and often clue you in a bit to the chapter & the character’s state. They also reflect Charlie’s personality and nature. I would pretty much wear any of them on a t-shirt (I don’t do bumper stickers.) and I sure enjoy the next nugget at the beginning of the next chapter.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Humor serves its own purpose, especially if it’s also providing insight into characterization.

  42. I’ve seen another example recently and loved it. Rachel Caine’s Invisible Library. Amazing use of this gimmick with messages between the villains mostly but also historical characters and sometimes the heroes.

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