Keeping the pages turning

A post at Kill Zone Blog: The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

This is a post about chapter breaks and how to keep the reader turning pages. The recent post here, where I linked to The Intern’s analysis of The Hunger Games, and of course the Would You Turn the Page posts are relevant here. But this post by Odell is a little different. It’s about looking for good places to break a chapter from the author’s point of view.

Keeping readers turning pages is a big thing for authors. Who doesn’t love a message saying “I stayed up all night reading your book”?

Very true! Everyone loves that!

Readers look for reasons to put the book down. They have chores, or work. Kids. Schedules. Bedtimes. Chapter breaks are logical stopping points. Long before I started writing, I learned that if I was going to get any sleep, I had to stop reading mid-page. A former critique partner referred to these endings as landings. Others have called them hooks. What makes a reader say Okay, I’ll read a little longer?

The author of this post — Terry Odell — goes on:

When I went back and added breaks to my endless tome, I discovered that I’d ended every chapter or scene either with someone driving away or going to sleep. They were, to my mind, logical stopping places. But not exactly page-turners. More often than not, the best exit was behind where I’d put my break. I’d gone too far, feeling the need to wrap things up.

I agree that it’s natural to end a chapter where someone goes to sleep. Sometimes I do that, though I realize it’s a natural place for the reader to stop as well. I kinda think at least one chapter in Shines Now ends that way. There’s nothing actually wrong with ending a chapter like that, and in fact the question of “But what happens after he wakes up???” can be pretty compelling, imo.

Still, I grant, it may be useful to end the majority of chapters with a cliffhanger of some type. Not necessarily a death-defying situation the way Zelazny so famously did here, because that’s fine for an experimental novel and maybe for a super-high-tension thriller, but that kind of thing can get tiring for your reader. But if not that kind of cliffhanger, perhaps with a question that needs an answer or a puzzle that needs a solution; anything that prompts the reader to think And then what?

Let me see. Shines Now is pretty short; just 78,000 words. Twelve chapters. How does each chapter end? Let me take a look.

Chapter 1 — a cliffhanger, with, ha, an actual cliff. That’s a bit funny in this context.

Chapter 2 — a more restful break, though no one actually goes to bed.

Chapter 3 — a decision point followed by a shift to the next scene

Chapter 4 — a shift from one scene to the next; and here I supposed I’d better specify that I mean a scene occurs largely in one time and place and that any major shift in place or particularly in time means you’ve moved to another scene.

Chapter 5 — a shift from one scene to the next

Chapter 6 — a decision point followed by a shift to the next scene

Chapter 7 — a time-has-passed shift from one scene to the next; we skip lightly across most of a month.

Chapter 8 — a major decision point

Chapter 9 — a time-has-passed shift from one scene to the next; in this case we skip over several days.

Chapter 10 — a fraught encounter is followed by a pause as we move to the next scene.

Chapter 11 — a single tense sentence shoves the reader hard into the next scene. This is not a place where anyone is going to stop. We’re too close to the end of the story and the transition from Chapter 11 to Chapter 12 is filled with tension.

Okay! So, I’m certainly not going to fiddle with chapter breaks at this point. It’s interesting to me to realize that I had people go to bed pretty often, but that’s not where I broke chapters. Scenes, yes, signaled by line breaks. But not chapters. Because this is a short novel, there are several places where I skipped over days or weeks. Those are very natural places to break a chapter, even though they are low-tension places for a break.

I see I have frequently set chapter breaks right after an important decision. A decision point works, I think, like a cliffhanger, in that the decision poses a question: Now that this choice has been made, now that the protagonist has committed to this course of action, what happens next? Ditto for a fraught conversation or encounter: now that this important encounter has taken place, what happens next?

It’s certainly interesting to see where I tend to put breaks. I think I may try this during the revision process next time: ask what is happening at each chapter break and perhaps shift breaks around a bit as a result.

As you know, Shines Now is available for preorder for the next few days! It’ll go live on the 21st.

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9 thoughts on “Keeping the pages turning”

  1. I really like it if chapter breaks fall at resting-points in the story; maybe not for every break but regularly enough that I can put it down for the night and go to sleep when it’s (well) past my bedtime.
    Say, at least once per hour of reading I really want a resting point to take a break at, at the end of a chapter. (I generally can’t stop in the middle of a chapter.) Writers who can manage that tend to feel most comfortable for me in their pacing of the story.

    I do sometimes get sucked into reading on way too long, but hate being so tired next day *and* hate having absorbed less than all the story impact because I was too tired when I read the latter parts.
    For some writers that means I won’t start their books until the weekend, if I can manage it.

  2. And then there’s Pratchett, some of whose Discworld books have no chapters at all.

    I hear you, Hannake, I’ve been there.

  3. Has anyone read the newest GGK? It came out after this post and I paid particular attention to how he ended his chapters, but I’m not sure I cared for his little closing commentaries.

  4. That’s All the Seas of the World, and wow, that was fast.

    On a dark night along a lonely stretch of coast a small ship sends two people ashore. Their purpose is assassination. They have been hired by two of the most dangerous men alive to alter the balance of power in the world. If they succeed, the consequences will affect the destinies of empires, and lives both great and small.

    One of those arriving at that beach is a woman abducted by corsairs as a child and sold into years of servitude. Having escaped, she is trying to chart her own course—and is bent upon revenge. Another is a seafaring merchant who still remembers being exiled as a child with his family from their home, for their faith, a moment that never leaves him. In what follows, through a story both intimate and epic, unforgettable characters are immersed in the fierce and deadly struggles that define their time.

    I actually haven’t read any of GGK’s books set in this world, which Amazon says are A Brightness Long Ago and Children of Earth and Sky. If you’ve read those, what did you think? And did you basically like this novel? I’m certainly interested in what you describe as little closing commentaries. I’ll have to pick up a sample just to look at that.

  5. I think I liked the book. Fionavar, Tigana and A Song for Arbonne are my favorites of his, and even Ysabel I liked. I’m not sure if it’s that I am older, or that GGK is older, but I find his more recent books a little forced, as though he’s trying to wring emotions out of me and I just find it over the top or too obvious. The world is the same world as Sarantium and the Lions of Al Rassan and he throws back to those books in this one. I woke up last night thinking things like, well, that plot line didn’t track very well, or— why did she hear that? That was random! So- on the whole I would recommend reading it, but I don’t feel it ranks up there with his best.

  6. I couldn’t keep my mind on Children of Earth and Sky, FWIW. And the Brightness title didn’t do much for me either. Like Alison I’m not sure if it’s me, him or just people change.
    I’ve only downloaded the sample of this one.

  7. Thanks for your comments!

    I loved the Fionavar trilogy so much; and I think I’d pick Under Heaven as my second favorite. Then Tigana and Song for Arbonne. The looming tragedy in Lions of Al-Rassan makes me not want to re-read it. For whatever reason, I could not get into Sailing to Sarantium, and ever sense, I think I’ve been a bit reluctant to try other books of his even though I’m not sure I’m being fair. From your comments, I still don’t know. I think I will re-read some of his and then see how I feel about trying his more recent books.

  8. Gene Wolfe’s _Pandora, By Holly Hollander_ is a striking example of the plot dragging the reader from chapter to chapter. Another reason to read the book, beside it being really good, in my (highly unusual no doubt) view one of his best in fact, is that Holly is perhaps Wolfe’s only fully realistic character.

    Apropos ” two of the most dangerous men alive” – this is something GKK does all the time, and Wolfe has Severian do, and it really bugs me.

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