Friday, February 7, 2014

Just a trim? Or a completely new ’do?

As the resident short story writer on the panel here—one who’s never written published a novel—I don’t usually think in terms of chapters but of scenes. But when has lack of experience ever kept someone from chiming in with advice, right?

Seriously, though, when I saw the first part of this week’s question—"How do you know where one chapter ends and another begins?"—two things jumped to mind, and I hope they’ll be useful for folks thinking about craft.

Years ago, when I was a student in the MFA program at George Mason University, I came across a bit of half-joking advice about shaping short stories—and it’s one that I always pass along to my own students now that I’m teaching workshops at Mason: Once you’ve finished your draft, go back and delete the last paragraph. And while you're at it, cut the first one too.

Certainly that advice shouldn’t always be taken too literally, but the idea behind it has time and again proven sound guidance. Too often, an opening paragraph (sometimes even an opening scene) turns out to be prep work for the real story, and the writer who clears away all that and jumps right into the drama often finds a stronger opening—not letting "setting the scene" get in the way of the scene itself. As for a story’s ending, my own problem is often trying to spell out too much—making sure the reader doesn’t miss whatever it is I’m trying to get across, whether some explanation of what happened or some added emotional resonance—and though I always work hardest at the rhythm of closing lines, to make sure the language as well as the plot serves to the story to a bigger finale, sometimes that work can end up sounding overworked. Efforts to enhance an ending often just dull or diffuse the impact, and trimming back can help in those cases too. Removing the last few beats of my own writing often seem to provide room for the reader to engage with the story in a bigger way: filling in the emotion that was held back, reaching that a-ha moment in their own time, or just dodging those darlings we writers are so regularly reminded to kill.

And those guidelines aren't just good for the first and last paragraphs of short stories but for the beginnings and endings of scenes with  as well—and, I'd imagine, for chapters too. 

Scott Turow
The second thing that popped into my mind was a profile of Scott Turow from Poets & Writers a few years back, which included some commentary on Turow’s chapter endings and a term that has stuck with me: “the dying fall.” Here’s an excerpt:

Where other writers in his putative peer group are addicted to cliff-hanger chapter endings in the manner of the movie serials of the 1930s, Turow generally eschews such devices. Instead, he’s a master of the dying fall, passing up the chance to manipulate the reader into turning the page in favor of finishing off a chapter with quiet finality and poignancy. And while what his characters do is important, so is why it’s done—what past events led to it, and how personal histories keep rippling concentrically into the present. The ripples often manifest themselves as a series of ethical quandaries that pose complex, morally ambiguous, ultimately existential questions.

That phrase “putative peer group” seems more than a little snarky, of course, but otherwise the commentary resonated with me, and the approach here is something that I’ve noted more carefully in my reading and criticism and also taken to heart as I craft scenes for my own stories. I’ve read those books, of course—haven’t we all?—where each chapter ends perched on the edge of the some urgent unknown: the door waiting to be opened, the encounter just around the corner, the shocking revelation that desperately needs explaining, the gun that went off… but oh, no! Who got shot?

In such circumstances, I find myself doing what everyone else likely does: turning the page quickly to discover “What next?” And often I really do love the momentum of books like that. But I also recognize how too many cliffhanger chapter endings ultimately just flatten out the overall experience. We know it’s coming, we know the trick, we yearn for some variety. And the books I really find myself drawn more deeply into are ones—like Turow’s—that have a greater richness of texture, both in the closing of chapters and the opening of scenes and really at all points throughout.

I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying what Alan said yesterday when he wrote, “I try to use a fair number of cliffhangers (but not TOO many). Sometimes I end my chapter at the end of a scene, but often I’ll end the chapter in the middle of a scene.” I don’t imagine that Alan or others think, “Oh, I should try a dying fall here at the end of Chapter 7,” but I know from his work how well he balances action with introspection, suspense with a side of soul-searching, and I firmly believe that the best writers are the ones who recognize that keeping readers turning the page may not be as important as keeping their attention and emotions engrossed page after page, and scene after scene, and line after line.

As for the second part of this week's question—"What is a chapter?"—I'm thrilled to say that I have the perfect answer for it, one that will not only enlighten and entertain but also ultimately change the way that everyone who reads this blog post will look at novels in the future. Fundamentally, essentially, a chapter is—


Art Taylor


Terrie Farley Moran said...

Lots of food for thought here for all writers.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Lots of food for thought here for all writers.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Terrie!

Meredith Cole said...

Love the first paragraph and last paragraph advice, Art. And I think you've just proved that you're very, very good at writing cliffhangers...

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Meredith! I did have a little fun with that last couple of paragraphs. :-)

Dana King said...

I like Turow's way better than the perpetual cliffhangers. Modern thrillers often wear me out halfway through, with their endless ramping up of the stakes to unreasonable levels.

The best I've read at keeping me moving from chapter to chapter is WEB Griffin. Not a lot of cliffhangers, but each chapter ends with a set up for the next, so you've turned the page before even thinking about it. It's a little like Mickey Spillane's dictum, the last chapter sells your next book, but on a micro level.

Alan Orloff said...

Nice post, Art. Get in late, get out early is good advice. In many of my books, "a dying fall" has a completely different meaning! I CANNOT wait two weeks to read the conclusion of this blog entry--you're a devil, Mr. Taylor!

David Dean said...

And here I was about to send a story off--now I've got to look at those first and last paragraphs again! You'd think after twenty-five years of scribbling that I would know these things. Thanks, Art. Another good article!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Dana, Alan, and David! I've never read WEB Griffin, Dana; need to add that to my growing list of should-read authors. Alan, yes! "Dying fall" is such a good phrase in so many ways. And David: I'm the one who's always taking lessons from YOU!

Barry Knister said...

This is a useful, thoughtful and well-written post--thank you. The issue you take up can also be thought of in terms of readers. Some readers are more accepting of (or susceptible to) obvious manipulation. If a reader is sophisticated, he/she is more likely to resent being too obviously "played" by the writer. This applies to cliffhangers, and it also applies when the writer makes a too-obvious effort to grab readers by blowing someone or something up on page one. But when it works, it's great--witness the opening scene in Charles Belfoure's The Paris Architect. There, I am aware of being grabbed, but I admire the skill with which it's been done.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the kind words, Barry, and for the additional perspectives. I think you're so right about readers potentially feeling "played" by writers--though you're right too that if it's done well, that can make all the difference in the world. (And another book to add to my need-to-read list!)