Thursday, 11 August 2011

On Chapter Endings

Learning to manipulate your chapter endings is vital if you want to write a page turner.  Most people read in bed and aim to read a chapter before they go to sleep. Ideally they come to the end of the chapter and it's so intriguing that they start the next one to see what happens next.  Having started the next chapter they 'have' to finish it, then at the chapter end they're about to put the book down, but think they'll just have a quick look at how the next one starts, and before they know it they're sucked into reading the whole book even though their eyelids are drooping and they feel sick with tiredness.  

Depriving ordinary people of sleep is part of your job as a writer.

How to do it?  Simple - each chapter needs to end with something that intrigues, puzzles, moves the story in a different direction, whatever.  It may be an internal revelation or an external event.  It might be a question or something someone says.  It could be almost anything, so long as it leads the reader on to the next chapter.  

Here's a scenario.  The main character, a servant girl, has been raped by a rich and powerful man.  She hasn't told anyone because of the shame and who would believe her word against his?  Then she's told by another servant that her best friend has just gone off to meet this rich and powerful man alone in his isolated house.  She realises that her best friend is in danger.  She tells the other servant what happened, and that the best friend is in danger.  Together they rush to the rich and powerful man's house.  They arrive just as the rich and powerful man is opening the front door.  They grab the best friend and all three run away.  He (along with his gang) chases them.  They out run the gang, and get back to safety.  There, the main character reveals what's happened in the past, and the three of them decide to report him.  They go to sleep, happy that the best friend is saved and that the main character will finally get justice.

Where would you put a chapter ending?

First of all, not where I've ended the scenario.  Think about how many picture books for small children end with main characters all settling down for the night.  It's not a coincidence that a surprise picture book best seller is called "Go the F*** to Sleep" as it reflects many parents desire at the end of a working day.  But I'm not talking about writing for small children.  Characters going to sleep at the end of chapters is almost asking the reader to put the book down and drop off. 

I think there are 3 possible places to put a chapter ending.  

1 - where the main character realises that her friend is in danger.  She has a decision to make - if she tells what happened to her she is shamed, and/or she may not be believed, but if she doesn't, her friend may well be attacked.  Which decision will she make?  Read on to find out...

2 - the main character has told the other servant what has happened and they both realise the danger.  They decide to try to rescue the best friend - but will they get there in time?  Read on to find out....

3 - they've rescued the best friend and are running away - but the rich and powerful man and his gang is chasing them.  If they are caught they'll all be in danger.  Will the gang catch them?  Read on to find out...

Which one is best would be up to the writer.  Basically, each alternative ends with a question (one which of course you would be writing more subtly than I have done here).  The reader must go on to the next chapter to get the answer and once they're on the next chapter you've done it.  They're hooked and, hopefully, sleep deprived.



5 comments:

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

I have studied the business of PTQ (page turning quality). I love the idea that my job is to deprive the reader of sleep. Next time I'm in a bad mood, I'm sure that idea will drive my writing. Thanks for that. Good one!

Sarah Duncan said...

You're welcome Fiona!

Gilli said...

I do know all of that.... The problem comes when the chapter in question doesn't have a cliffhanging moment. Know what you'll say. Do I need that chapter? Hmmmmm......

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Keep em guessing, leave em hooked/wondering? Always a good idea, I think. I try to do it all the time but occasionally it is difficult if the story doesn't lend itself at that moment.

Sarah Duncan said...

Gilli, I think cliff-hanger is perhaps misleading - it can be something very small scale, a hint of what lies ahead.

Pat, I agree it's not always obvious where the 'right' ending place is, but there's usually something, some little hook, some moment of tension you can use.