Over at Backspace, a writers community I belong to, a member started a conversation about chapter endings and beginnings. I’ve followed it closely because in reading the thread I realized a lot about my own endings and beginnings.
You might think that’s backwards–endings and beginnings–but in fact that’s exactly right. Why? Because the first sentence, paragraph or two–your hook, what you open your book with–is more important than any other beginning so I consider that separate. It should be crafted with the purpose of enticing the reader to keep reading. Sol Stein, a famous literary attorney, said that he and a publishing friend once watched browsers in a bookstore. If they picked up the book, they almost always read the first page or two–and either bought it or put it back on the shelf. The cover entices them to pick it up (or the name, or something else), but it’s the writing that makes them buy . . . or not.
We talked about hooks awhile back here and MSW and we’ll probably talk about them again in the future because they are important, but there’s something equally important as the opening hook. And that’s selling the reader on your next book. And part of that–other than of course the writing–is keeping them engaged. Chapter endings entice them to keep reading–just one more chapter before turning out the light. But beginning that next chapter is just as important.
I never struggle with ending a chapter–I intuitively know when to end it. But beginning a chapter? That’s harder for me. I have to think about that opening line, because you’re hooking the reader all over again. Just like you don’t want them to put the book down at the end of a chapter, you don’t want them to read the first paragraph of the next chapter and think, “Oh, this can wait until tomorrow.”
I am such a slacker. I meant to write this last night and use examples from books–and I might to that next week. But I’m sitting here at Panera Bread about to get working on my paranormal novella and realized I had forgotten to finish this post. Grrr. So bare with my off-the-cuff examples!
The end of one chapter segues into the next, but the transition is in itself a hook. For example:
Cliffhanger #1: Same time and place
“Watch out!” she cried. “He has a gun!”
Then begin the next chapter with the next moment in time.
John stared at the approaching gunman, his own weapon out of reach.
You can stay in the same POV or switch POVs, whatever works for your book.
Cliffhanger #2: Same time, different place
“Watch out!” she cried. “He has a gun!”
Then begin the next chapter at a different location. You’ve left one set of characters confronting a man with a gun; now you move to a completely different scene. The reader wants to know what’s happening with the gun, but this scene is also important–or should be. For example in movies when they go back and forth and you don’t know if the hero is going to make it in time to save his loved one.
John slammed on his brakes as the mother and child stepped into the crosswalk. Couldn’t they hear the siren?
Dialogue is a powerful tool for raising another question that the reader wants to have answered. One cop turns to another after examining a crime scene.
“Suicide?” John asked.
Jim shook his head. “She was dead before hitting the pavement.”
The next chapter could begin at the same point in time, or maybe the coroner arrives, or maybe it’s the next day at the autopsy, or in the villain’s POV, or maybe the POV of another victim. It doesn’t matter, as long as you eventually answer that question for the reader–how did she die? We know she died before hitting the pavement (obviously they suspected suicide because it was a jumper) but did she have a seizure and accidentially fall from the balcony? Was she poisoned? It could be anything–you answer one question, but raise another.
Revelation: Personal Introspection or Narrative
Internal or personal relevation is often used when a character makes a decision that impacts the story. This is usually in the narrative.
Janet stared at the gun in her shaking hands. She hadn’t held it since the last time, when she’d killed a man in cold blood. Why was she scared? She shouldn’t be. She knew how to use it, she knew how to kill. And John’s life was on the line.
Then why couldn’t she load the damn revolver?
So the question is, will Janet be able to get over her fear to save John’s life? Anything could happen in the next scene, from being in John’s POV (and maybe he’s not in danger–yet) to her POV as she walks to her car and we, the reader, don’t know whether she had the courage to load and bring her weapon. Or we can see her loading it as she remembers the last time she used it to kill her stepfather as he was about to rape her. So many possibilities.
Description is one of the hardest ways to end and begin a chapter–for me. Other writers seem to do this effortlessly. To me, the most effective way is if setting is character. Is a storm brewing? Keep the momentum of the mounting storm building into the next chapter. Or if it’s a contrast between where the heroine is–in the middle of a snow storm–to where the hero is–in a hot office building in NY, show the contrast. I, personally, don’t like too much description, but when done well it gives a powerful feeling to the story, and can be a hook in itself. Weather is just one example. Narrative describing the state of a dead body, for example. You’ve seen shows where an innocent bystander is walking through the woods with his dog and comes across a dead woman. The visual that you see can be translated to the printed page. Then the next chapter may start with the crime scene techs all over tha scene, a contrast from the peaceful morning walk of a man with his dog with birds chirping, to what seems like mass confusion, lights and sirens, shouts and cursing.
I remember a workshop I took and I swear I can’t remember who taught it. I want to say Jennifer Dunne. It was a STAR workshop. Anyway, she gave a lesson to describe a scene in one way, but leave the reader with the opposite impression. For example, showing the beauty of a setting through the villain’s eyes–red is blood red, ferns have sharp cutting edges, etc. I wrote a scene from the killer’s POV for THE PREY during this workshop without knowing it was going in the book. He walked into a floral shop with the purpose of killing the girl behind the counter, but as he waits for the customers to leave he describes the flowers and plants. Ending a chapter on such a descriptive conflict can be powerful.
I love omniscent POV. This is author intrusion and when used sparingly can be incredibly effective. In THE HUNT, for example, I had a scene in Nick’s POV as he’s walking around a deserted cabin. No one’s there. Then he sees boots, and as he’s reaching for his gun he’s hit over the head. I end the chapter with something like, “Nick was unconscious before he hit the ground.”
In this same vein, I love switching POV just for that last sentence. In my upcoming SPEAK NO EVIL I did that after Nick (now the hero!) puts everything on the line to be involved in the investigation that may prove his brother is a murderer. He is relieved and makes a sly comment to the heroine. He walks off with another character and Carina looks after him, realizing that Nick Thomas’s simply country sheriff act is just that, an act. That there’s more to him than he wants anyone to know, but she’s up for the challenge.
When you use omniscent or switch POV at the end, you can start the next chapter anywhere.
To summarize, you can begin chapters:
* Same time, same place, same POV
* Same time, same place, different POV
* Same time, different place
* Different time, same place
* Different time, different place
Whatever you do, look at the connectivity between your chapter endings and beginnings. Do BOTH want to keep you reading? Pick up a book by one of your favorite authors. JUST read the last paragraph of the first three chapters AND the first paragraph of the subsequent chapters. How do they work together? What techniques do they use? Do you want to keep reading?
There are probably many more examples that I haven’t listed here. In the end, don’t overanalyze your work. I never look at the endings or beginnings until after I’ve written them. The most important thing is your voice and the story that comes from your characters. Then go back and maximize the impact of your hooks.