As we approach the end of the year and the beginning of another, a theme inspires me: endings.
We’re writers/poets, so we must be (better be) readers, 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 my first novel was literary/women’s 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.
We 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 that recently-published first novel, “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.
Those of us who write fiction may want to browse the work of our favorite authors and take a look at the chapter endings. What techniques have they used to keep us moving through the book? Now, lets look at one of our own manuscripts and see if there’s anything we can apply to our work to keep the reader turning the page.
While this post seems to apply more to fiction than poetry, take a look at some poems that offer endings that surprise. I ran across one today by Sheila Moore, posted for dVerse OLN on Tuesday that meets the bill. Endings offer poets fertile ground for ideas: death, ending of a relationship, meeting a life goal.
For today’s writing prompt consider one of the following:
- Write a poem or a piece of short fiction about an ending. You may want to reflect on the ending of 2011.
- Share a chapter or piece of short fiction with an ending that induces the reader to want to know more.
- Write a poem with a surprise ending.
- If anyone takes the challenge to review your own work in progress and revise it based on the idea of tantalizing the reader, you may want to share the result with us. Include both the first write and the revision if you like.
- Post your poem or story on your blog.
- Copy and paste the URL into the Mr. Linky at the bottom of this post. Be sure to include your name.
- Visit other participants and offer your comments.
I wish everyone a blessed and peaceful New Year. That is what I wish for our poor world, as well. If I’m absent next week, it’s because I will be in the midst of travel. While I plan on posting, timing and Internet connections will be the bosses.