Ending on the Highest Note

Where you leave a reader at the break before the next chapter has a large influence on whether he will turn the page. This point seems straightforward, but I can’t tell you the number of times that I have enjoyed an exciting chapter, only to feel stranded out in the middle of nowhere at its end. I’m left feeling like the conflict creating the excitement wasn’t really the point of the scene.

To use the imagery of a cliffhanger in a slightly different fashion, think of a chapter as a drive up a mountain until it reaches the edge of a cliff. Focus on way up, not the ending. What matters is the momentum you build in one specified direction. An event as seemingly insignificant as a mother’s scoffing at her daughter’s rough charcoal drawing could be made into a terrible blow if the daughter spent the entire scene beaming inside about how happy it will make her mother.

Conversely, if you have a dynamic piece of action for which there is no build-up, placing it at the end of a chapter is not going to have much impact. The event will come at the reader out of the blue. Let’s say the chapter mainly features two villains arguing over their slice of the take, and suddenly a third villain shoots someone outside the window. Why the heck did he do that? The chapter wasn’t about that. If the action is exciting, then use it as a focal point around which to organize everything leading up to it in the chapter.

If your chapters frequently comprise several scenes apiece, you need to determine the dramatic weight of each of the scenes. To judge when you should end the chapter, write down the event that closes each scene. One sentence, describing what happens. If, for example, the first scene ends with the FBI showing up and confiscating a company’s files, that seems like a pretty high point of drama. But if your next scene follows the company’s owner to his child’s baseball game so that he can talk to his wife about the FBI showing up, that is a piece of lesser action. Don’t end the chapter there. You don’t want a chapter that steps down from one event to another. Keep driving up that mountain.

Exercise: A character’s reaction to an exciting plot event can be moved to the start of the next chapter. This is an ideal place for such material, anyway. Characters discussing an event is not as exciting as the event itself. It is secondhand news, even if an important new plot pursuit emerges from that discussion. Think about that in terms of structure. If a new direction emerges, that constitutes a new start—so it belongs at the start of a chapter.

“Write something, even if it's just a suicide note.”
—Gore Vidal

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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