Critique Technique, part 7: scene and chapter endings

I’ve written about beginnings in the last couple of posts. For the next couple, I’ll discuss the endings of sections, chapters, and the entire piece. This article will look at the first two.

Articles and short stories are often divided into sections, sometimes even into chapters. Books of all kinds are almost always divided into chapters, and those chapters often have sections within them.

Why would a chapter, article, or short story be divided into sections? In fiction, sections contain the action in a specific time and place, from a particular point of view, or focused on a certain character. In non-fiction, a section may focus on these or on a specific topic that could be one of several within the piece. When the scene, time, point of view, key character, or topic changes, the author can use a transition—usually a word, phrase, or sentence that carries the reader across the change (something I’ll cover in a later article)—or she can start a new section.

The end of a section has two purposes. First, like its beginning, it needs to create curiosity in the reader, to make him wonder what’s next and so propel him into the next section. The second purpose is to make things worse for the central character, or maybe all of the characters, of that section. (Then, if the piece switches to another character or set of characters, that creates even more tension in the reader because his curiosity isn’t satisfied immediately—he has to wait to find out what’s going to happen. Oh, how sneaky, evil, and devious we writers are!)

So, how can a section’s ending create that curiosity and tension, and how can you, the reviewer, tell when it hasn’t? Two words: “obstacles,” and “frustration.” Obstacles keep the section’s protagonist from reaching her immediate and long-term (story) objectives. (I’ll write more about objectives later, too.) At the end of every section, she should have more of them in her way than she had when the section started. That should increase her frustration, leaving her wondering, “Now how am I going to overcome this, along with everything else?” The reader should be asking that, too, whether she’s sympathetic to the protagonist’s cause or not.

In fiction, the writer’s job is to keep making things worse for the story’s major characters (protagonist(s) and antagonist(s))—to raise the stakes for them—right up to the climax. In non-fiction, especially creative non-fiction, the author’s job is similar—to relate how things kept getting worse. Even in something as direct as a how-to article, for example, at the end of each section the author can present an obstacle the do-it-yourselfer could face.

Now, that new obstacle doesn’t have to be super-dramatic, the famous “cliffhanger.” In fact, in a chapter or short work, cliffhangers at the end of each section are probably impossible or will make the reader stop believing the story. The new obstacle can be something simple, but it still has to be an obstacle.

Here’s an example. In my own novel-in-progress, one chapter has over 30 scenes as the focus jumps between five different characters. In one scene, my reporter, Lisa, needs to find the leader of a rally, Sarah, after the rally has turned into a riot, something Sarah didn’t plan. Unfortunately for Lisa, she’s on a balcony on the old North Carolina State Capitol building, while Sarah was on a stage fifty yards distant, but has now been hustled away. Lisa doesn’t know where Sarah’s gone and has to get through the chaos of the riot to try to find her. Sarah’s disappearance isn’t a huge obstacle for Lisa in the larger scheme of the story, but it does frustrate her immediate desire to get Sarah’s reaction to the violent collapse of her rally. This leaves the reader wondering, “What will Lisa do? Will she find Sarah? What will she do if she does? What will she do if she doesn’t?” (The next section, of course, shifts to another character entirely, building my reader’s tension as she waits to find out what happens with Lisa and Sarah.)

Those are the requirements for the end of a section. They’re the same for the end of a chapter, only more so. Cliffhangers are appropriate here, but probably not at the end of every chapter. Still, the author wants the reader biting his fingernails, wondering what’s going to happen next, and having—just having—to turn the page.

All right. Now you’re the reviewer and your job is to decide whether the end of a section or chapter has done its job. Here are questions for you to ask:

  • Did the ending of this section or chapter make things worse for the character(s)?Did the ending increase my tension? Did it make me have to know what happens next?
    • Did it put new obstacles in their way, or make existing ones worse?
    • Did it add frustrations, or make existing ones worse, as the character(s) try to reach their goals?
  • Did the ending increase my tension? Did it make me have to know what happens next?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” figure out how the author failed to raise the stakes for her characters and/or how she failed to increase your need to know more. Then offer suggestions on how to make the piece better.

What else do you look for in the end of a section or chapter to decide whether it’s been a success or not?

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