Sunday, October 21, 2007

How Waves Fall

Have you ever noticed how waves fall?

They rise out of the flat surface of the sea, gathering momentum as they surge toward shore in a succession of c-shaped curves, only to fall against the sand and retreat back into the sea to begin the process again.

It's this motion of advancing and retreating--this pulling and pushing simultaneously--that you can use to create effective chapter endings.

Each of your novel's chapters is like a wave carrying your story toward its final destination, and you should be able to feel the force of these waves--pushing and pulling--at the end of every chapter.

How do you pull your reader forward so that she wants to continue reading the story while simultaneously pushing her deeper into the character's struggle?

Let's examine how two authors--William Wise and Barbara O'Connor--craft their chapter endings.

Here's the last paragraph of chapter five from Wise's Christopher Mouse: The Tale of a Small Traveller, an elegantly written tale about a young white mouse's adventures as he makes his way into the world and soon finds himself in the care of a boy named Freddy:
It was typical of Freddy. He enjoyed making other people happy; he liked to know that somebody else was pleased. And yet, I've heard it's possible to be too generous. I think Freddy was. He found it difficult to disappoint anyone. I guess it made him feel so bad himself. Because of this--and my own stupidity--something happened that no one could have foreseen.
This paragraph happens to mark a turning point in young Christopher's life. Until this moment, Christopher has led a relatively sheltered and tranquil life... and it's at this precise moment that he realizes his mistake of taking that tranquility for granted.

Like a wave falling toward shore, this paragraph pulls the reader further into the story with the very last words ("something happened that no one could have foreseen"), which present the reader with a mystery, a sense of danger, a challenge awaiting Christopher (and the reader) as soon as we turn the page.

That's one of the keys to successful chapter endings: they must compel a reader to turn the page in order to find out what happens next.

Yet, like a wave, a successful chapter ending tugs a reader backward, too. How? By offering the reader, in this instance, a chance to feel the deeper currents of Christopher's struggle to survive life's unexpected whirlpools and riptides.

Here's another chapter ending to examine. It's from from Barbara O'Connor's How To Steal A Dog, a moving story about Georgina whose family is living in a car until her mother can find enough money to get them a decent place to live.

As a way to help her mother raise the much-needed cash, Georgina concocts a scheme with her younger brother, Toby, to steal a dog from a wealthy owner, intending to return the dog when the owner puts up posters offering a large reward.

These paragraphs conclude chapter thirteen:
I waited in the car until it was time to go back to school and get Toby. All afternoon, I tried to concentrate on what I had to do next. I went over my How to Steal a Dog notes in my mind and thought about how good I'd done so far.

I had done good, hadn't I? I mean, I'd found the perfect dog. I'd stolen him. I'd put him in a good place where he was safe. Now all I had to do was wait for Carmella to get the reward money. I bet by the time me and Toby got over to Carmella's, she'd have money, and then I could just move on to the last step in my dog-stealing plan.

Shoot, I bet me and Toby and Mama would be in our nice new apartment just about any day now.
Can you feel the force of the wave pushing and pulling simultaneously?

O'Connor pulls the reader forward into the story, compelling the reader to turn the page, with these words of hope (which the reader senses may prove nothing more than an illusion): "I bet me and Toby and Mama would be in our nice new apartment just about any day now."

At the same time she pushes readers deeper into Georgina's struggle to help her family by moving us inside Georginia as she begins to question her plan, the one that she's spent days figuring out and on which she's pinned all her hopes.

Notice how both Wise and O'Connor adroitly use chapter endings to take readers deeper into the main character's struggle, as well as use them to suggest danger or trouble or a challenge ahead that their characters will have to face.

Also, notice how each chapter ending serves as an opportunity to reiterate or remind the reader of what the character wants and how far he or she has come and still has to go to get it.

The next time that you're floundering, not sure how to end a chapter, imagine your chapter as one of successive waves rushing toward shore, each wave carrying your story a little closer to its final destination.

If you can offer your reader a sense of danger or mystery lurking ahead at the end of each chapter, as well as deepen the reader's understanding of the character's struggle, you'll soon feel the waves swirling around your ankles, pushing and pulling you and your reader deeper into your story.

For more information on chapter endings, visit:

For information about William Wise and Christopher Mouse, visit:

And for information about Barbara O'Connor and How to Steal a Dog, visit:

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