The Townhouse of Ideas

The Bell Curve

When I was in junior high, I had a good English teacher who taught me a lot of what I now incorporate into my writing. While not a creative writing teacher per se, she taught us the elements of the short story.

She taught us that all stories involve the following conflicts:

–Humans versus humans

–Humans versus nature/the world

–Humans versus what’s inside themselves, psychologically speaking.

She also told us that a story is a psychological journey. The lead character starts in one psychological state, and ends up in another. Whether the character is better or worse off at the end depends on the nature of the story.

However, the lesson she taught that’s stuck with me the most is the “bell curve” structure of storytelling.

Here’s an illustration of a bell curve:

A novel is like a rollercoaster. The first chapter is where the rollercoaster first starts its journey. The first chapter is where you check your safety belt, make sure that you’ve taken off your hat, and you otherwise make sure that you’re ready for the journey. There’s a sense of anticipation in the first chapter of a novel. But here’s the thing that modern writers don’t understand:

The first chapter of your novel should be the least interesting chapter of your novel. Yes, the first chapter should be interesting and intriguing, but… every chapter that follows should be more interesting than the previous chapter. So, chapter two should be more interesting than chapter one, etc. 

Yes, I know, this is not what modern writerly advice tells you.

Most modern writing advice acts like the first chapter should be the most interesting chapter, so that you can “draw the reader in.” But if the first chapter is the most interesting, then the other chapters pale in comparison, and the audience starts getting restless. If the other chapters are boring compared to the start, then the reader is going to struggle with the rest of the book. They may even abandon the book, just because the next chapters are staid affairs compared to the first chapter.

So, the first chapter should be the “get situated” chapter. The authors should set up their dominoes in the first chapter. The second and third chapters should be the place where the readers get really hooked, as they can feel the ascending action happening. Then, as the book progresses, the dominoes fall over. The dominoes finishing falling over is the climax of the novel.

But back to the bell curve. As you see, the bell curve goes up and up and up, gaining tension. The chapters of your book should also be this way, giving a reader a sense of suspense and excitement, because they know that the payoff is coming.

Then, once one gets to the apex of the bell curve, the rollercoaster fun really starts. Soon after that, it’s time for the wheeeeee. About two-thirds of the way through the book is where we start having the climax of the book, where the reader should be breathlessly turning the pages of the book, wondering how everything’s going to play out.

If your climax and falling action don’t satisfy the reader, they’re going to think you’re a poor author indeed, and they won’t buy your next book.

Too often, I see the bell curve used in the first chapter, but then everything about that theory of writing gets abandoned after the first chapter. When the theory is abandoned, the events just flatline, like this stretch of road:

Without the suspense that comes from writing in a bell curve structure, the audience has nothing to look forward to after the first chapter except a series of events that don’t have much emotional impact.

Without the suspense that comes from writing in a bell curve structure, the audience has nothing to look forward to after the first chapter except a series of events that don’t have much emotional impact.

So often I read audience reviews of books that say, “I don’t understand what happened. The start of the book was great, but the next chapters were a boring slog to get through, and the ending sucked.”

That’s what happens when the start of the book is the most compelling part of things. You lose the audience that you gained with that amazing first chapter. I gotta tell you, I don’t make it all the way through a lot of modern books, because the bell curve first chapter followed by a flatline of monotonous highway bores me.

Now, you can screw around with the bell curve and have good results. Take the original 1978 film Halloween. Spoiler alert:

–Bell curve 1: We start with a bell curve. Seven-year-old Michael does something shocking.

–Bell curve 2: We get exposition, which we need because we want to know how a little kid could do something that horrible… but we’re seduced into another bell curve. Grown-up Michael escapes.

–Then the film goes into the longest bell curve (#3, if you’re still counting), which is the rest of the movie.

Why do it that way? To tell the audience that horror is coming.

Sadly, most moder, arthouse horror films start with a bell curve beginning, flat lines (usually involving arguments and/or people walking sadly around spooky places), only to end with twenty minutes (often as short as five minutes) of ultraviolence. The problem is that the flatline plot lasts so long that by the time we get to the bell curve at the end, we no longer care.

Looking at Halloween, we can see that one can start out with an incredible start to a work of entertainment, but then we have to restart the book by building up suspense again after the start. The audience will wait three chapters or so to watch you rebuild the bell curve, but if you don’t do that, you’re giving the audience a boring highway instead of a road they want to travel on.

Remember my first rule of writing: Never bore the reader.