You’re a writer, so you must be (better be) a reader, first and foremost. How often do you succumb to a late night reading marathon and regret it the next morning when you have to drag your weary bones out of bed and face the day? Chances are, the author of a book that keeps you turning pages into the wee hours of the morning has mastered the art of chapter/scene endings.
I learned a bit about this from my good friend and writing buddy, Judy. She’s written a medical thriller and I write literary fiction. During one of our critique sessions, she told me there was nothing at the end of the chapter that made her want to read on. I had pretty well wrapped up an event without any inducement to the reader to want to know more. I countered that literary fiction is different from genre fiction, but as I thought about it, I had to refute my own argument. True, the conflict might be internal rather than action-oriented, but it’s still critical to leave the scene and/or the protagonist hanging off the proverbial cliff.
You can achieve this in a number of ways, but here are a few that I have found helpful.
- Interrupt the action: avoid allowing a scene to come to a logical conclusion. Set up the narrative so that the reader knows something important is about to happen, but leave her dangling. Here’s an example from “Winter is Past” in which Claire has to make a phone call that she dreads facing:
I punched in the numbers and held my hand on my chest as though to slow down my racing heart. Maybe she won’t be home, I hoped. She answered on the second ring.
By leaving the call incomplete, I invited the reader into the next scene. If I had continued through to its conclusion, that would allow her to close the book, turn off the light and go to sleep–maybe never to return.
- Close the scene with a question. I find this works well in literary fiction where, as you know, the protagonist is plowing her way through a series of internal conflicts. Let’s look at another example from “Winter is Past.” Claire’s mother is on the verge of disclosing a family secret:
“I’ll do better now, I promise. It’s just that . . .” she fell back into silence. “Oh, never mind. It’s not important right now—we’ll talk another time.”
When? I wondered. And about what?
- Complete the chapter scene with a promise. In this example, one of the characters is withholding information from another:
The dogs nabbed milk bones from the floor as I released control and eased into my husband’s embrace. “What do you have planned?”
“I’ll tell you in the morning. Just get a good night’s rest, okay? Come on, dogs; last call to go outside.”
- Interrupt a scene in the middle of an unresolved emotional climax. Raise the question, What is she going to do about it?
By the time I met Josh downstairs, that dull ache had returned to the back of my head. I faked a smile that made me feel like a clown hidden behind makeup. “Let’s go,” I said, trying to squash the emotions still raging inside.
By way of a writing exercise, browse the work of your favorite authors and just take a glimpse at the chapter endings. What techniques have they used to keep you moving through the book? Now, look at one of your own manuscripts and see if there’s anything you can apply to your work to keep the reader turning the page.