Posts Tagged questions
In the Norwegian version of the film Insomnia, one of the characters tells an anecdote that is never finished. It appears inconsequential, perhaps a throwaway line to illuminate character. But good scripts never contain spare remarks, and this interrupted fragment quivers through the rest of the story like a deep note from a cathedral organ.
It is like the job the characters are doing – investigating a murder and having to create the ending for themselves. It returns later when parts of the story become dreamlike and the main character is tormented by guilt. It is like the everlasting arctic sunlight that won’t allow the day to end.
So leaving this anecdote hanging is a rather clever move by the writers.
Stories need closure – of course they do. We need to feel they ended in the right place. In most genres this does mean tying up all the ends and solving the mysteries. (We’ve all been infuriated by novels that are deliberately teasing us towards their sequels – The Hunger Games and Twilight. They don’t seem to be playing fair.)
In most genres, the fun for the punters is wondering how the murderer will get caught, how the romantic twosome will get together, how the battle was won, how the world was saved (or lost). That’s what they’re there for.
But if you are writing a story that aims to go deeper than the events, perhaps you don’t want to tie everything up or explain everything.
Insomnia ties up most of its physical threads – it ends when the case ends. But morally it is anything but neat. The characters leave the story with unfinished business and nagging burdens – and this is its true power. It is the toll paid by those who have to deal with murder. The viewer carries it too, as sharer of this experience in all its ambiguity. (Did ever a post try so hard not to give spoilers?) It plays fair, but it deepens the mystery.
Stories don’t always have to give us answers. Sometimes the questions they give us are as important.
Have you got a favourite story that doesn’t answer all its questions? Or do you hate it when writers do that? Share examples, good and bad, in the comments!
Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon. Not too late to nab a Kindle copy if you’re aiming to be a Wrimo!
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
What’s the purpose of a chapter break? Is it to split the book into manageable chunks? Is it to give the reader a chance to have a rest?
If that’s what you think, you’re missing the point.
Sure, the breaks make the book look like an easier read. But what you do with a chapter break is offer the reader a point to stop – and then convince them to stay longer anyway.
So how do we know where to end a chapter?
Narratively, a chapter has to feel complete, and the ending needs to shift the story on a gear. There are probably three natural ways this happens, depending on the type of novel you’re writing:
- a cliffhanger
- a question
Some manuscripts I see end too many chapters with closure. For instance, the character moves to a new town. That’s quite an old-fashioned way of writing, and worked fine in the days when everyone finished books as a point of principle. But these days, if we don’t feel a little tug of tension too, or enough curiosity about the consequences, it’s a sure opportunity for the reader to slip away. Possibly for ever.
You might think cliffhangers are the perfect solution for keeping the reader gripped. And they’re de rigeur for certain types of genre, of course.
But some writers misjudge them. To take the expression rather literally, if you send a hero over the edge of a ravine we know very well that the chance of them splatting at the bottom is slim. The reader knows, if only subconsciously, that what awaits over the page is a rather dry sequence of physical explanations and that the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion.
Physical action is not what prose does best. Unless you can pull out a real surprise that makes a significant change (eg it’s the point where someone discovers they can fly) it’s probably not going to keep the reader addicted.
But these types of endings are focussing on the wrong outcome. Instead of ending the chapter with the question of whether the hero will survive (which is no question because they will), end it on the real moment of change – the point where they soar away on the breeze and think ‘oh my, I didn’t know I could do that’. That’s the real surprise for the character and the reader. It’s the story-changing point that’s worth grandstanding as a chapter ending.
If you’re ending on a physical cliffhanger, is there a more interesting development that comes from it? Should you move a few paragraphs on and end on the really interesting development?
(Interlude: In case you’re thinking this is an indication of the shenanigans in My Memories of A Future Life, it’s not. No one flies in that book, except with the assistance of an aeroplane. Various rules are broken in that story, but not the laws of physics. Now back to the post.)
What prose does best is emotions and questions. They’re what binds us to characters and stories – and they’re the best ways to keep your reader sitting up that little bit later. Most of your chapters won’t end on cliffhangers or closure, they’ll be lower key. But you can make sure every single one feels complete but tugs the tension tighter, answers a question but poses another.
When to put them in
I don’t split my books into chapters until very late in the editing process. I don’t think it can be done until I know the whole book inside out in its final form. Then I spend a lot of time chopping and rejigging, assessing where the natural turning points are for maximum intrigue. Sometimes I find an episode in the book is too long to be a chapter on its own, so I rework it and slip in a break half-way. All this helps maintain the pace of the story and give it irresistible pull power.
Your chapter endings are not where you give the audience a break. They are where you get them to recommit to the book.
Thank you, Dave and Leo at Mirabilis, for the picture!
My Memories of a Future Life will be available from 30 August, 2011