Thursday, 4 September 2014

Week Nineteen: Beginning and Ending Chapters

Commercial novels demand tighter chapter endings and beginnings than other kinds of books, to maintain tension across a broad readership.

In any commercial novel, from thrillers to romances, the writing is generally expected to be fast-paced and gripping wherever possible. Notable exceptions aside, there is little space for leisurely meandering towards an important event, or for interesting sidetracks between events. Once the reader puts your book down, perhaps to sleep or have dinner or get off the train, you have lost them - unless you can leave your main character in such a breathtaking spot at the end of each chapter that they have no choice but to pick it up again as soon as possible.

Beginning A Chapter

There are two or three basic ways to begin a chapter.

The first is to pick up exactly where you left off at the end of the last. This is where the chapter division is not there to indicate time passing, but delivers a 'beat' in a scene, i.e. a pause which allows vital information to sink into the reader's mind. Maybe some great revelation has just been made, or a terrible confrontation enacted. A pause is required, for both reader and character to dust themselves off, reevaluate the world of the story, shake their heads at someone's villainy, or gather another important clue in a whodunnit.

The second method is to break up the story into intervals or sections of time, i.e. indicate that time has passed. So the last chapter ends with, Jack turned over in bed and let himself drift off to sleep, giving up on the impossible question of how a cat had been able to escape a locked room. The next chapter might then begin, with perfect convention, The next morning, Jack woke with the answer. A secret trapdoor!

'The next day Muldoon's alarm woke him at 7am as usual.' Wait! That's not a very exciting way to start a chapter. Hmm. 'Muldoon had only been asleep a few hours when he was woken by an almighty explosion.' Yes, much better.

Or the chapter break might serve as a useful point at which to jump to another character's point of view. So the chapter might begin, At that very moment, Sylvester the cat was walking along a narrow wall some ten feet below Jack's window, his slitty green eyes fixed on the bouncing approach of headlights in the dark. For less experienced writers, this method is usually better than shifting viewpoint midway through a chapter, even if it means very short chapters; no offence, but it is genuinely difficult to shift POV during a scene or within a chapter without jarring the reader's trust in the narration. And the shorter the chapter, the more tense and fast-paced the narration, so you win both ways.

In general, keeping chapters short is a sound commercial approach. Our attention spans as readers are getting ever smaller as books contend with time spent on television, films and computers. The theme should be simple, the blurb a soundbite, and the chapters as succinct and purposeful as you can make them.

So how long should a chapter be? This depends on genre and individual tastes. Sci fi novels set in space are often great tomes with chapters as long as your arm, for instance. But anything over ten pages needs to earn its place in a would-be commercial novel, and even a three page chapter is not a bad idea if the episode contained within it has the force of a sledgehammer. Basically, anything that gives a genre novel more of a 'hook' for a reader also endows it with more commercial value.

Literary writers, this does not apply to you. Though frankly, you will not ruin your stories by making them snappier.

Ending A Chapter

The end of a chapter is a moment fraught with danger. Will the reader continue onto the next chapter, and possibly risk lack of sleep or missing their train stop, or will they put your book away and start again tomorrow? Obviously writers don't want readers to starve themselves or avoid visiting the toilet in order to read on. (Honest, guv.) But if you can leave a reader on tenterhooks and keen to return to your book after a necessary break, you are less likely to lose them.

Ending a chapter on dialogue is always a great choice. Dialogue can contain far more in a shorter number of words than prose narration can ever hope to do, because good dialogue reveals character, and character drives plot. So with dialogue you get both pace and character, along with nuance and plot. It's a winning combination.

But what kind of dialogue?

In general, you need something that will shift the narrative in a new direction, such as a vital or shocking reveal: 'Sylvester is an alien, not a cat,' she explained, bursting with excitement, 'and his species are planning to invade Earth!' Or a piece of information that will make the reader turn the page in a fever of anxiety: 'Get out, get out, the whole building's wired to explode!' 

Readers browsing in bookshops or libraries (and editors looking for new writers!) often scan the first few chapters to get a sense of pace. So make sure your first few chapters in particular begin and end in exciting ways.

If you don't have anything that explosive to hand, don't worry. You only need to suggest that the plot is about to shift or a huge reveal is about to happen. It's called cheating, and it's okay so long as you don't do it too often in a book, because that can alienate your reader very quickly. For instance, in the above example where Sylvester is disclosed at the end of the chapter as being an alien, the next chapter could begin, 'Don't be ridiculous,' Jack exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief. 'Sylvester is not an alien, he's a real cat. I just had him neutered.'

If going with prose instead of dialogue, a short paragraph is best. Something that both sums up what came before and points to what's next. Even better is a pithy one-liner, if you can get that to work without over-egging the pudding. But don't forget that the need for pace and the 'reveal' of vital information still applies. For example: Sylvester sat motionless, watching the vast mothership descend out of cloud.

But the main idea with both dialogue and prose endings is to make it impossible for the reader to chuck the book aside and carry on with their lives without giving another thought to your story. So whichever kind of chapter ending you choose, tick the checklist to see if it swings the story at a right-angle, reveals character, drives plot, and makes your reader turn the page.

QUESTION: How do you prefer to end your chapters - and why?

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Many thanks, Jane Holland