A writer who frequents my blog, Flogging the Quill, asked me this question:
“How about chapter endings? Must they always end with a cliff-hanging, hyperventilating, page turning, stomach churning, my-God-I-ripped-the-pages-trying-to-find-what-comes-next? I just realized my ms is structured chronologically and some chapters seem to end naturally with everyone going to sleep at the end of a day, and I’m looking for excuses to leave it as it is.”
I know what she’s facing. The story is moving along. A chapter seems solid, it advances the plot or characterizes or both. It feels good. But what happens at the end of the chapter doesn’t clench your mental knuckles. Is that a problem? I can give you a definite maybe.
Agent Cherry Weiner once took a look at a period mystery of mine. Her rejection letter told me that “the characters were good and the story was interesting. But I could put it down.”
That’s what agents and acquisition editors are looking for—something they don’t want to put down. The brain cells these pros use to evaluate fiction have calluses. What do you think it’s going to take to create a story they can’t put down?
Does this need necessarily mean that every chapter must “always end with a cliff-hanging, hyperventilating, page turning, stomach churning, my-God-I-ripped-the-pages-trying-to-find-what-comes-next?”
The answer: not if you have enough accumulated tension
Whether at chapter beginning, middle, or end, what every story must do is continually raise story questions that are so provocative, so engaging, so rife with intrigue, that the reader is compelled to keep reading. The key to creating overarching tension is that story questions can be cumulative; they can add up to create an overriding level of tension in the reader. It’s that level of tension that carries readers through exposition and description.
In one of my works in progress, a protagonist has just escaped torture and death at the hands of a not-so-ethical Homeland Security agent. He’s lost his job. He’s on the run. He can’t return to his life to care for his autistic son. The reader knows that pursuit will continue. The future he faces raises many story questions—how will he take care of his son? Will he escape this unjustified hounding by a relentless agent? How can he prove his innocence?
More than that, the reader knows that the man who rescued the protagonist has nefarious plans to exploit him to commit a horrendous crime against humanity. Story question: will the bad guy succeed in betraying the protagonist?
In the chapter following his harrowing escape, things relax for the protagonist. He is given hope by the man who rescued him that things will be all right. The protagonist reaches a safe haven. He is cared for and, even more fun, seduced by a beautiful, provocative young woman. The chapter ends in the midst of their love-making.
While the chapter ends with a scene that is far from a cliff-hanger, the sum of story questions in the reader’s mind is so powerful by now that putting those questions on hold for this moment of peace actually increases the tension because the reader knows that trouble is coming, bigtime.
Put another way: you’re in a tree on a hilltop. Beneath the tree a couple is having a picnic lunch, laughing, kissing. No tension there. But then you see something that they can’t see—a gigantic bull with deathly sharp horns is charging straight at them. You’re going to want to see what happens next, right?
Therein lies the best answer I have for the writer’s question about chapter endings. It may be fine for a chapter to end without people dangling over the edge of a precipice if the reader knows that terrible trouble is inevitable and coming on strong. In that case, surely the tension is increased. But I think this technique must be used with care.
The non-cliffhanger chapter must still be riveting in its own way, with unanticipated twists and turns that keep the story questions coming. And I don’t think you can defer getting back to the white-knuckle part for too long, else the reader will become frustrated.
However, all that said, it makes sense to work darned hard to make sure that every chapter ends with narrative that escalates the tension. Even if cumulative tension is strong enough to do the job, why not keep piling it on if you can?
For what it’s worth.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Dan Terzian