I was working on a client’s manuscript this week (a novel) and noticed a recurring pattern: at the end of every chapter, she stopped abruptly, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation. One character would ask a question and the other would simply not reply. I kept turning the pages thinking that there must be extra line spaces inadvertently added in, but no – that was where the chapter ended.
I asked the writer what was going on, and she said, “I did that to create tension, so the reader would want to know what was going to happen next.”
While that impulse is excellent, the execution wasn’t there. It’s not random curiosity that you want to engender in the reader. It’s story-specific curiosity.
You want a chapter to bring the main character to a decision or a crossroad or some moment where something specific at stake, so that the reader wonders what that character will do. The decision or action has to have meaning to them and their internal reality – the truth of what they want and why they can’t seem to get it.
Writing a novel is building what Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, calls a “cause and effect trajectory.” One thing leads to another thing, which leads inexorably to the final moment when the main character has to face the thing we have come to watch her struggle with.
There is a fabulous explanation of this truth from the writers of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They talk about a test: if you can say, “and so” to link together the element of your story, you have missed the boat. “And so” means you have a collection of things that happen—probably random, probably not leading to anything, probably not capable of capturing a reader’s attention. What you want instead is to link things with “because of that…”
One thing happens and because of that another thing happens and because of that the next thing happens.
Cause and effect. It means everything is linked. It means everything has to be there in order for the whole to make sense.
You can watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about their “because of this” theory HERE.
It’s the fundamental lesson of story, and one that you can stop and measure at the end of every chapter.
· What’s the thing that has happened in this chapter?
· What, then, is the thing that happens because of that?
That’s what the reader will turn the page to find out. If you can’t answer, you’re not finished with that chapter.
And if you have to stop in the middle of a conversation or invent some drama to urge the reader forward, think again.
For memoir, you have the advantage of being able to look back on your life and see the connections that led from one thing to another. You can see the dominoes lined up. And your bigger task is to take OUT some of the pieces that don’t apply to the one trajectory we are tracking.
In how-to and self-help, the “because of that” test will help you to build a solid argument that draws your reader through a series of steps and decisions to become something new – smarter, skinnier, divorced, or whatever state you are guiding them towards.
Crafting better chapter endings is a powerful way to become a better writer. Pay attention to the flow of one chapter to another and you will be on your way to a story your reader can’t put down.