by Barbara D'Amato
I was reading a novel, maybe the fifth or so in a series I really like, when I began to feel manipulated. After flipping back and forth in the book, I decided the problem was the structure. The chapters alternated like this:
Main character confronted by puzzle
Secondary character in danger
MC still puzzled
SC getting farther into danger
MC finds clue which produces more puzzles
SC – worse danger
MC -- puzzled
And so forth. It’s not that going back and forth between characters is a bad technique. It keeps things moving. The problem in this book was the metronomic regularity of the switch. The story needed a third element to appear a couple of times to keep the process from being predictable.
In another mystery novel, three chapters began with a dream. The kind of thing where you read into it thinking it’s real and then the dreamer wakes up, usually all stressed. These chapters were widely spaced in the book and not, I think, intended to be stylistically important. Nor were they an important characteristic of the man who was dreaming. They seemed to be a solution the author had found to the problem of getting into a new chapter. But it was overused.
We all get into habits. Something worked before? Use it again. That’s learning. But it’s also dangerous. We need to check out our habits and to do that we need to be aware of them.
The same with chapter endings. A lot of books I’ve read lately end every chapter on a note of high suspense.
“What’s that at the end of the corridor?”
“Do I smell—gasoline?”
“That can’t be John! John’s dead!”
Which is all very well. We are often told to make the end of each chapter a cliffhanger so that the reader is compelled to read on. Unfortunately, this technique becomes predictable, candy after every meal. There are a lot of ways to end a chapter. You can end a chapter in the middle of action, the middle of a conversation, the middle of a fight, the end of a fight, even on a temporary resolution, or a final resolution for a minor character. It doesn’t have to be a bated-breath suspense point. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be every time. If the book’s premise is strong, a breathing space at the end of a chapter can be refreshing.
There is a way to catch some of your habits. Lay out the first page of each of your chapters in order. Yes, you can scan through your manuscript on your word processor, but it really does make a difference when you see them lined up together physically. Look for unintentional similarities.
Do the same with the last pages of your chapters.
I’m betting any one of us will find habits we didn’t know we had.
You don’t want to be predictable.