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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Chaptering: Those Magical Last Lines

As a novelist, it has never occurred to me to write a book that wasn’t broken into chapters.

I seem to read more articles on writing than actually writing, it seems. For instance, I’ve read many articles on writing that first chapter. I’ve even read articles on the art of writing the second chapter, and the third and fourth. I’ve even read essays on writing the last chapter. However, I’ve read hardly a paragraph advocating the writing of a novel without a single chapter break.

We need chapter breaks. Sometimes we need a moment to pause and reflect on the previous scene, to absorb the impact. Sometimes, we need to switch to a different character’s point of view.

Sometimes, we just want a place to put a bookmark so we can close the book.

There is a specific science that goes into the design of a chapter: the alchemy of the first line, the balance of scene-and-sequence, the length of the chapter itself. We can spend weeks discussing the anatomy of a chapter but, truthfully, there is one part that, to me, is far more important than all the rest put together: the very last line.

While novels, on average, contain thirty to forty chapters and are usually eighty to ninety-five thousand words long, it is not enough to do a little math and come up with the proper number of words that should be in each chapter. Why? Because it’s a story, not a list that you can simply hack off at the proper line. A chapter can only be ended at one, single spot—and that is the absolute perfect spot.

That’s where the tricky part comes in—finding that perfect spot.

For me, the perfect spot to end a chapter is the perfect place to compel a reader to keep reading. I have a flashing neon light in my head when I write, and it blinks the words PAGE TURNER. That’s my goal when I write: to create a page turner that a reader has a hard time putting down.

The “page turner” mantra was instilled deep into my psyche long before I began professional writing—as a reader, I developed a fondness for the way certain authors (Laurell K. Hamilton immediately comes to mind) had a way of keeping me reading long past my bedtime.

“One more chapter,” I’d mutter. “I have to see what happens next.” And the next thing I knew, I was hugging the handrail on the bus the next morning, struggling to remain upright and feeling like a zombie (not the fun kind) on three hours of sleep.

When I started writing novel-length fiction, it was something that I knew I had to do, just as sure as having chapters. It was a given. The chapter had to end as well as—if not better than—it started. That was part of a book's magic.

How can you do that? Here are some tricks I picked up along the way.

At times, we may be tempted to end a chapter simply because it has gone on too long. (On the contrary, you cannot fault a chapter for being too short as long as it does its fair share of work.) I’ve split up long scenes into chapters for the sake of chapter flow but, when I do, I try to end it in the middle of action. That way, no one is tempted to put a bookmark down.

Sometimes we’re tempted to look at chapters as mini-novels, with beginnings and middles and ends. I’ve found it doesn’t always work like that for me. In fact, I distinctly remember one chapter that I wrote as such—beginning, middle, end—and the chapter ended with the heroine saying good-bye and leaving the room.

Even I’d stick a book mark in there.

If only I’d somehow continued the action…it would have felt less like a place to stop and more like a place to catch a breath before flipping the page.

Bill Henderson writes about ending chapters on the “Write A Better Novel” blog. He tells us that readers need some sort of closure at the end of a chapter, and that closure can be achieved with the use of a closing beat.

A closing beat, according to Henderson, is “…almost anything–a thought, an event, a perception, a discovery. It can be as simple as your main character’s musings about tomorrow, as he goes to sleep, exhausted by the day’s events. Or it can a new and provocative piece of information, signaling to the reader that somewhere, somehow, a confrontation is looming.”

That closing beat would give the reader a sense of closure without giving a reason to close the book entirely.

Cliffhangers are more dramatic than closing beats. As a reader, I know I’m a sucker for conflict. I want loads of it—nail-biting, bookmark-shredding conflict just so I can root for resolution. The last line is the perfect place for a little conflict: a surprising reaction, an unexpected arrival, a gnawing sense of foreshadowing. Even the slightest hint that things are going to take a turn for the worse is enough to make me turn the page. (As much as I love conflict, I desperately need to see things work out. I can be such a nervous reader.)

If you can’t end it in the middle of action or with tension and suspense, you have to end it with a fantastic last line. But what constitutes “fantastic”?
This is a time to let your writer’s voice shine through. You, as a writer, have a particular style of prose and, whether or not you want to admit it, you have a certain way with words of which you’re particularly proud. Use the skills of your craft to hone that last line as only you could—whether you write from a deep POV or tend to make poetic observations.

People have short attention spans. Use your last line to backload the chapter and leave readers with a relevant and articulate memory, one that will color their overall impression of the chapter. (Of course, you still have to make sure it’s a brilliant chapter. As the folks around here are fond of saying, you can’t put a shine on—well, you know.)

The single greatest compliment an editor ever handed me was when one said I really knew how to end a chapter. I didn’t realize I “knew” how to do it—it was just something I picked up from being a reader who’d been spoiled by the masters themselves. As a reader today, it’s something to which I pay careful attention, because it tells me whether or not I want to keep reading or put a book down to do something else.

It used to be a subconscious thing. Now it’s like watching a magician, knowing what sleight-of-hand is, and focusing on the concealment instead of the distraction. It’s still magic, but it feels a bit more mechanical when you know what to look for.

But that’s part of the craft—knowing the tricks behind the act. Ending a chapter well makes for great reading…and great reading feels like magic.


"Chaptering: Those Magical Last Lines" #writingtips

"Four ways to end a fiction chapter: #writingtips on chaptering"

"Don't let the end of your chapter ask for a bookmark..."

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. Visit Ash's blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com for news on her urban fantasy series The Books of the Demimonde (Pink Narcissus Press), which has continued with the release of Blood Rush (Demimonde #2). Wolf's Bane (Demimonde #3) is expected mid-2014.


Unknown said...

I love this post because writing chapter endings is one of my favorite parts of writing.

I feel that if too many chapters end in a similar way (even if it's a great way), it starts to jump out and intrude on the fictive dream. And if the said chapters have the 'beginning, middle, end' format, the story starts to feel episodic.

Rosie said...

There are few things I like better than ending a chapter with a cliffhanger. (But now I think I need to pay better attention to structure.)