Rules for writing — Rule 12: End a chapter with a bang, not a whimper

My last post, on short sentences, reminded me that I haven’t been adding to my rules for writing, a somewhat randomly numbered series of guidelines that I try to follow, and you probably should too, if you’re writing mainstream novels.

The short sentence I discussed in that post came at the end of a chapter, which, as the Times article rightly pointed out, is a very good place to put a short sentence.  But what’s up with chapters?

Chapters are a nebulous concept.  If you were to ask me “How long should a chapter be?”, my response would be “I dunno.”  I don’t have a rule for that.  Sometimes you have a set piece that demands to be its own chapter, and the length is determined by the length of the set piece, but at other times you have a more or less continuous flow of action, or rapid-fire viewpoint changes, and it’s not at all obvious what function the chapter is playing, other than giving the reader an obvious place to stop reading, turn out the light, and go to sleep.

But you don’t want the reader to stop reading!  You don’t want the reader to go to sleep!

So the obvious thing to do is to end the chapter with something that forces the reader to keep reading into the next chapter.  And then I heard the screams. End of chapter.  What screams?  Who is screaming?  Better turn the page and find out.

This is the cliff-hanger approach to movie serials, and it’s such an obvious narrative ploy that I shouldn’t have to explain it to you.  Except that I keep screwing this up!  Twice so far in the first draft of the novel I’m writing I’ve ended a chapter with my narrator going to sleep.  That’s nuts — it’s an open invitation to the reader to go to sleep too.  If the narrator is safe in bed and nothing is going to happen till morning, there’s no reason to keep reading.  My writing group has had to gently remind me that the narrator shouldn’t go to bed at the end of the chapter — he should get whacked on the head by an unseen adversary, or discover a corpse, or fall into a bottomless ravine.  Or, you know, hear an unidentified person screaming.  And they couldn’t be more correct.

I’ll get this right in the second draft.  But in the meantime, I should print out this blog post and pin it next to my computer.  Let’s not screw up again.

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