Here, from the Storytelling section of my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. is “ Chapter endings”
A writer asked me this:
"How about chapter endings? Must they always end with a cliff hanging, hyperventilating, page turning, stomach churning, my-God-I-ripped-the-pages-trying-to-find-what-comes-next? I just realized my ms is structured chronologically and some chapters seem to end naturally with everyone going to sleep at the end of a day, and I’m looking for excuses to leave it as it is."
I know what you’re facing. The story is moving along. A chapter seems solid, it advances the plot, or characterizes, or both. It feels good. But your mental knuckles aren’t clenched at the end. Is that a problem? Could be, unless you have underlying tension from before that’s building.
Agent Cherry Weiner once took a look at a period mystery of mine. Her rejection letter told me that “the characters were good and the story was interesting. But I could put it down.”
From all I’ve read and heard, that’s what both agents and acquisitions editors are looking for—something they don’t want to put down. How hard is that to do, if the story is interesting and the characters good?
I know I haven’t answered the original question yet, but context is important. An agent has requested a manuscript based on a query letter, so it’s sorta screened (a great query letter does not always lead directly to a great read). She’s received hundreds of submissions, many of which are interesting or have good characters. The brain cells the woman uses to evaluate fiction have calluses. What do you think it’s going to take to create a story she doesn’t want to stop reading?
And she knows something you don’t—the fiction market is so tight and so tough that many acquisitions editors are turning more and more to nonfiction just to find something they feel they can recommend for publication. Your novel has to be something that keeps these equally jaded readers from setting the manuscript aside.
Keep in mind that this book is about compelling storytelling. I think that to succeed with fiction in today’s market, every chapter must compel the reader to turn the page because they gotta know what happens.
Does this necessarily mean that every chapter must “always end with a cliff hanging, hyperventilating, page turning, stomach churning, my-God-I-ripped-the-pages-trying-to-find-what-comes-next?”
What every story must do, whether at chapter beginning, middle, or end, is raise story questions that are so provocative, so engaging, so rife with intrigue, that the reader is compelled to keep reading. When I reread the novel that Cherry Weiner rejected, I came to places where I felt I could put it down. She was right. I sent it to my then agent and, even though he loved the two novels he was representing at the time, he couldn’t seem to finish reading that one. I haven’t spent the time to figure out how to fix it yet, but that’s the tough truth.
But story questions can be cumulative; they can add up to create an overriding level of tension in the reader. It’s that level of tension that carries readers through exposition and description. And I think it can affect the reader’s take on a fairly benign chapter.
Midway into one of my novels, a protagonist has just escaped torture and death at the hands of a not-so-ethical Homeland Security agent. The reader knows that he will continue to be pursued. He can’t return to his life. He’s lost his job. He’s on the run. And the reader knows much more about the character that makes her want him to be okay.
The reader also knows that the man who helped our hero escape has a nefarious use for him that will lead to the deaths of many people. In this context, the protagonist reaches what seems like a safe haven with his rescuer. He is cared for and, even more fun, is seduced by a beautiful, provocative young woman. The chapter ends in the midst of their love-making.
So the chapter doesn’t literally end with a cliff-hanger, but the story questions in the reader’s mind are so powerful by then that putting those questions on hold for a moment of peace actually increases the tension in the reader because she knows trouble is coming, bigtime. Another example of continuous microtension.
And therein lies the best answer I have for the question. It may be fine for a chapter to end without people dangling over the edge of a precipice if the reader knows that terrible trouble is inevitable and coming on strong. In that case, surely the tension is increased. But I think this technique must be used with care.
The non-cliffhanger chapter must still be riveting in its own way, with unanticipated twists and turns that keep story questions coming. And I don’t think you can defer getting back to the white-knuckle part for too long, else the reader will put your book down.
In some texts on screenwriting it’s suggested that if act one ends on a negative note for the protagonist, then act two should end positively. It is the contrast that helps create tension. Stories must have rising tension, but along the way there should be brief respites. Without valleys, there are no peaks.
However, all that said, I’m going to work darned hard to make sure that every chapter I write (and edit) does end with a clear sense of compelling tension.
I think you owe it to all the work you’ve done on your novel to step back, take a look, and use your talent as a storyteller to make sure the tension crackles throughout the narrative. I’ll bet you can end those going-to-sleep chapters with tension quivering. If it’s difficult for you to see where the narrative needs injections of pressure, find informed, story-smart fresh eyes to help you see. We all need fresh eyes to make judgments about tension and story questions because we just can’t totally trust our own. We know too much, and we love our stories too much, to see the saggy places.
For what it’s worth
© 2010 Ray Rhamey