9.27.2018

Summing Up a Chapter

One of the keys of making the different pieces in a nonfiction manuscript—usually chapters—fit together is to link them. While you can stress certain themes of the book at multiple points, I am discussing the more straightforward work of adding a strong ending to each chapter. Here are a few pointers.

First of all, elevate. What does that mean? The chapter has been operating on a plane filled with specifics. Let’s say you’re writing about growing up on a farm in the 1950s. The chapter has covered the different steps involved in threshing oats. You’ve covered the machinery, the phases, and storage methods. In the next chapter you want to switch to an old-time schoolhouse.

At the end of the chapter, you don’t want to keep on listing specifics. If you do that, the reader naturally assumes that the chapter will continue. After all, that’s the plane on which you’ve been operating for the past 15 or so pages in the chapter. So you start the last paragraph (or two, if needed) by making a more global statement about threshing. “With the growing use of tractors, those days when all the neighbors would move from farm to farm would unfortunately come to an end.” You’ve risen above the fray, so to speak. You’re using a general term like “those days.” If you were filming a movie, you would be pulling back the camera lens for a group shot. If you write a few more sentences, operating on this higher level, the reader will feel the narrative distance you are creating.

You could write a 3-4 sentence paragraph that merely pulls away. If you are more clever, though, you will want to write an entire chapter bridge. Think about what a bridge does. It joins two segments of land. So one pier, so to speak, is anchored in the chapter you are finishing. The other rises from the chapter to come. Your sentences form the bridge.

If you use those 3-4 sentences to lead away from the completed chapter, you have partly crossed the bridge. If the next chapter discusses a rural schoolhouse, you then have to ask yourself: how do I get from here to there? Well, you were a child, and you went to school every day. So the threshing occurred when you were on summer break. So the bridge sentences to get the reader to school could run something like: “Once our winter food supplies were safely stored away, we had to switch from threshing’s demanding physical labor to work of another sort. Fall was coming, and that meant the start of another school year. In some ways, the work of learning was even more demanding.”

You’re still on that elevated plane. You’re about to delve into the specifics of your old school in the next chapter. When you think of a bridge, it too is elevated. All you’re doing is taking a longer view. If you think about it, that’s easy. The hard work is collecting all of those specifics.

“Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.”
 —H. L. Mencken

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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