Saturday, January 09, 2010

2010: Day 9 - Chapter Endings

Last October I attended a Donald Maass four-hour workshop. It goes without saying that those were the best four hours I’ve spent in a long time.

His message: Tension on every page—that’s what he focused his talk on—that’s what he wrote in my copy of “Writing the Breakout Novel.”

One thing I like to do is flip it open to any page and read a section. Today I opened it to page 174. In it he wrote about scenes that are predictably low tension; a character thinking while driving a car, having a coffee break, or relaxing in the shower. His advices we cut those scenes from our manuscript.

When I read on the following page about his advice on chapter endings, I thought of the number of manuscripts I've critiqued where the writer has a great ending then kills it with a long narrative explaining what just happened. Although the plot carries through from one chapter to another, I like to think of each as a short story all in its own. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end and, as ever writer knows, the closing paragraph needs to grab the reader and make them want to turn the page.
Here’s a for instance taken from my novel, “The Devil Can Wait” chapter 21. In this scene, homicide detective Sam Harper has questioned Jennifer Blake, a newspaper reporteror several minutes. He suspects she knows something about the recent murders that have swept through the city of Chandler, but she refuses to talk:

“Careful, Ms Blake. No law will protect you if you’re an accomplice.”

“Don’t you dare threaten me. I know the law as well as my rights. I also know I didn’t do anything wrong. Take it or leave it.”

“It’s not a threat,” he said. “I’m your only way out.”

“What do you mean, out?”

Harper stood up, carefully pushed the chair in, and walked up behind her. He was near enough to catch the delicate scent of her perfume. For a moment, his thoughts weren’t particularly professional, but he allowed himself the pleasure. He leaned in close to her ear.

She didn’t move.

“Two men were brutally killed,” he said. “If I found a connection between you and the victims, so will the killer.”

Would it have the same impact if I would have added a summary narrative that tells the reader what they just read? Like ...

She didn’t move.

“Two men were brutally killed,” he said. “If I found a connection between you and the victims, so will the killer.”

Harper didn’t know what else to say, how to convince her to talk, or impress upon her the danger she was in? She had to be involved in the killings or at least know who was. It wouldn’t be long before they’d come after her, but then, it’d be too late.

This final paragraph is not only unnecessary, but it’s redundant and kills the tension that had been building up between the characters. Maass had this to say about “aftermath” scenes:
“The so-called “aftermath” scenes, in which the hero digests what has just happened to him and settles on his next step, is an outdated technique.”


Terry W. Ervin II said...

Randomly checked my novel Flank Hawk. Randomly, 8 of 10 pages had action, conflict or building tention toward conflict. Not a lot of 'thinking' moments except in the context of action. Of course, mine is a different sort of novel than a detective story. And if I picked another ten pages, the results could be different.

As a side note, it is rare for a writer to refer back a year to a conference, so it was definately a good one for you!

Cristina Ruggiero said...

As a reader I agree with your post about “ending explanations” This is why I love Borges so much. When you are done reading that last page, you sit there in awe of that ending. (Usually totally unexpected.) I may have to go back and reread that last paragraph, the last lines, etc. if I was left with some type of doubt because Borges stories are such complicated reads, but Borges never left me feeling that as a reader, I would lack the intellectual capacity to understand what he wrote and therefore an ending would have to be explained. Good job!

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