Wednesday, April 9, 2014

End of Chapter Hooks

Nancy J. Cohen

Creating a hook at the end of a chapter encourages readers to turn the page to find out what happens next in your story. What works well are unexpected revelations, wherein an important plot point is offered or a secret exposed; cliffhanger situations in which your character is in physical danger; or a decision your character makes that affects story momentum. Also useful are promises of a sexual tryst, arrival of an important secondary character, or a puzzling observation that leaves your reader wondering what it means.

womantied

It’s important to stay in viewpoint because otherwise you’ll lose immediacy, and this will throw your reader out of the story. For example, your heroine is shown placing a perfume atomizer into her purse while thinking to herself: “Before the day was done, I’d wish it had been a can of pepper spray instead.”

This character is looking back from future events rather than experiencing the present. As a reader, you’ve lost the sense of timing that holds you to her viewpoint. You’re supposed to see what she sees and hear what she hears, so how can you see what hasn’t yet come to pass?

Foreshadowing is desirable because it heightens tension, but it can be done using more subtle techniques while staying within the character’s point of view. Here’s another out of body experience: “If I knew what was going to happen, I’d never have walked through that door.” Who is telling us this? The Author, that’s who. Certainly not your character, or she’d heed her own advice. Who else but the author is hovering up in the air observing your heroine and pulling her strings? Same goes for these examples:

“I never dreamed that just around the corner, death waited in the wings.” [okay, who can see around that corner if not your viewpoint character? YOU, the author!]

“Watching our favorite TV program instead of the news, we missed the story about a vandalized restaurant.” [if the characters missed the story, who saw it?]

“I felt badly about the unknown victim, but it had nothing to do with me. Or so I thought.” [speaking again from the future looking back]

“I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong.” [ditto]

“I was so intent on watching the doorway, I didn’t see the tall figure slink around the corner.” [then who did spot the tall figure? You got it--the author]

Although these examples are given in first person, the same principles apply to third person limited viewpoint. Your reader is inside that character’s skin. She shouldn’t be able to see/hear/feel beyond your heroine’s sensory perceptions. By dropping hints about future events, you’re losing the reader’s rapt attention. Stick to the present, and end your chapter with a hook that stays in character.

Here are some examples from Permed to Death, my first mystery novel. These hooks are meant to be page turners:

“This was her chance to finally bury the mistake she’d made years ago. Gritting her teeth, she pulled onto the main road and headed east.” (Important Decision)

“There’s something you should know. He had every reason to want my mother dead.” (Revelation)

“Her heart pounding against her ribs, she grabbed her purse and dashed out of her town house. Time was of the essence. If she was right, Bertha was destined to have company in her grave.” (Character in Jeopardy)

“She allowed oblivion to sweep her into its comforting depths.” (Physical Danger)

dead woman

Personal decisions that have risky consequences can also be effective. For example, your heroine decides to visit her boyfriend’s aunt against his wishes. She risks losing his affection but believes what she’s doing is right. Suspense heightens as the reader turns the page to see if the hero misinterprets her actions. Or have the hero in a thriller make a dangerous choice, wherein he puts someone he cares about in jeopardy no matter what he decides. Or his decision is an ethical one with no good coming from either choice. What are the consequences? End of chapter. Readers must keep on track to find out what happens next.

To summarize, here’s a quick list of chapter endings that will spur your reader to keep the night light burning:
1. Decision
2. Danger
3. Revelation
4. Another character’s unexpected arrival
5. Emotional turning point
6. Puzzle
7. Sex
In a romance, end chapter with one viewpoint, and switch to partner’s viewpoint in next chapter. Or end a scene of heightened sexual tension with the promise of further intimacy on the next page.

lovers

Sprinkle the lucky seven judiciously into your story and hopefully one day you’ll be the happy recipient of a fan letter that says: “I stayed up all night to finish your book. I couldn’t put it down.”

What other techniques do you use?


31 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post. Nothing makes me want to toss a book against the wall more than those hops into the omniscient POV. To me, it's like the current 'trend' of starting television shows with an "exciting" scene--let's say a bank robbery where people have died, perhaps including a regular. Then, the show shifts and you see "Three Weeks Earlier" on the screen. Well, why watch the rest? You already know what's going to happen. Find something else, and come back about 3 minutes before the show is over to see whether the regular character is really dead. (Or, if you're in my house where we don't watch TV "live", just fast forward to the end.)

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    1. That's because the show needs a suspenseful opening but then it shifts to current day and builds to that point. Like a prologue in a story...lazy writing.

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    2. Sorry, but does this mean to say that the use of a prologue is "lazy writing?" What does this mean, exactly?

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    3. I actually don't mind it when shows do that, I like seeing what happened to the characters to get to that point. Supernatural has done that a few times. :)

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    4. Sorry, Evan, if I've offended. I have heard numerous editors say to nix the prologue. In some cases, it can be helpful, like in framing a piece. But in many instances, the prologue isn't really needed.

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  2. Ditto what Terry said. Whenever I see one of those "little did he know what was about to happen" transition I stop reading.

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    1. Makes you gnash your teeth, doesn't it?

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  3. Always end a chapter with "tendrils of fog."

    (Dean Koontz really liked that image once upon a time).

    In any event, a description that is a portent is another hook.

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    1. Yes, good point! I will add that to my list. An evocative description can set the mood and raise anticipation for what's to come.

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  4. Author intrusion stops me cold. Like Kris, I usually stop reading and go to the next book in my TBR stack.

    The techniques Lynn Sholes and I use most often to keep readers turning the pages are short chapters, cliffhanger endings and a trick I learned from you, Nancy: bait and switch.

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    1. I use Bait and Switch tactics in my romantic adventures. They're perfect for raising suspense as long as the readers get engaged in each person's viewpoint. In case you don't know what this is, you leave one character in jeopardy and then switch viewpoints and do the same to him. Back and forth with cliffhanger endings for each segment.

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  5. I try to end each chapter with a question or problem that has to be answered in the next chapter, Nancy. Good blog.

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    1. Questions are good, Elaine, and so are ethical dilemmas for your character.

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  6. Very helpful suggestions! I agree about not using omniscient narrator intrusions. It might have worked well in the Victorian era but readers are more sophisticated these days.

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    1. Author intrusion is something that often needs to be pointed out to new writers.

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  7. When I think about the importance of chapter endings, one author always comes to mind: Dan Brown. He's masterful at knowing how to get readers to keep the pages turning. His chapters also tend to be very short, which I like, though I don't usually write that way. Great post...thanks!

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    1. Short chapters and short paragraphs tend to keep the pacing quick. Personally, I don't care for too short chapters but that's a personal preference.

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  8. I've been told that my novel (to be released in September or October) is a page-turner, and that certainly was my objective, so I took this blog post as an exercise, and analyzed the endings of all 53 chapters in the hopes that I might be able to add something of value to your post.

    Not sure what I have to say adds value, but I found the exercise enlightening.

    Many of my chapters end with decisions, combined with the character's reactions to the decision. In some cases, the character questions the advisability of his or her decision and even reacts emotionally to the decision (e.g., feels compelled, is being blackmailed, or is trapped somehow into making the particular decision.) Invariably, until the end, there is a lot of doubt in the mind of the reader, I think, about how the decision will work out.

    In some cases, the chapter ends with the character's reactions to what happened, i.e., a sequel, usually short, maybe one sentence, and often includes a statement about the world from the character's POV (readers love observations about the world, if you believe the number of times they highlight such statements in their Kindles.) A couple of scenes involve a major failure by the character, and the character reacts to that failure, i.e., another sequel ending.

    I've got some puzzle endings, some revelation endings (sometimes those revelations are about the character him or herself), two sex scenes (one ends with sex; the other ends with the character's reactions to the sex.)

    So, I guess there's enough variety.

    One think I dislike personally is breaking a scene into two scenes, i.e., the proverbial cliff-hanger where you leave the character hanging on a branch at the cliff. I think that one is a cheap trick, and I try to avoid it in favor of better ways to make the reader want to turn the page.

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  9. Thank you for your comments, Sheryl. Yes, action and reaction are good ones to add to the list. How a character responds to an event that just happened or a decision he just made can certainly compel a reader to turn the page.

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  10. BTW, I like the label "author intrusion" for what I used to call "telegraphing." (I've switched to your label as of now.)

    I think your label more correctly describes what's going on in those "little did they know" statements.

    As with so many of the tools we writers use, I wonder if a book written with an 'independent' narrator might get away with the 'little did they know' author intrusions. Or, perhaps a book with a frame and a narrator. Or, perhaps a book written now, but looking back at what happened in the past.

    I'm scurrying to my personal library to see how Ruth Rendall, writing as Barbara Vine, handles this. I can't remember her doing it, however.

    I did see this in one of Follett's books, but I can't remember which one. It annoyed me, however.

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    1. I wouldn't be as emotionally engaged with this type of distancing from the story with an independent narrator. But if it's the viewpoint character perhaps looking back at what happened, then I could accept it.

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  12. I'm thinking that the possible "exceptions" I mentioned in my prior post aren't really author intrusions, but narrator intrusions, but, still, I wonder if even those are needed when there are so many other ways to get the reader to turn the pages.

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    1. If an author does foreshadowing properly, one shouldn't need those intrusive statements.

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  13. Nancy--
    All this makes good sense. I would just add one thing: most of what leads me to keep reading has to do with characters. When the writer has created characters that are fresh, engaging, free of cliché, I keep going., even when chapter hooks are missing. The best of all worlds results when great characters are in stories written by writers who also know how to end chapters effectively.

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    1. Yes, Barry, you are right. It's characters who bring readers back for more. That said, I wouldn't end a chapter with one of those engaging people going to sleep. It's too tempting for the reader to put down the book, too. But yes, if we love the characters, we'll keep reading to find out what happens to them.

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  14. This is a great discussion and a very timely post. LIke many others here, that "little did he know..." phrase riles me up. If he didn't know, he didn't know!

    Your examples were spot on, and I loved how you summed it up so succinctly. As a writer, I have to rein myself in and let the information out a little at a time, because I'm burning to share every bit of the story right away!

    I'm sure your list of seven hooks encompasses this, but as I read through them, I was thinking of each hook's impact on the POV Character only. If the danger isn't just personal, but to a loved one or a vulnerable individual or even a pet, a person will also burn the midnight oil to correct the situation.

    Thanks for jumpstarting my creative process this morning!

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  15. Yes, that's true in regards to the jeopardy involving someone else. Good point, Maggie!

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  16. Very helpful - I'm using them for my revision. Thanks. Author intrusion is a big problem; I always wonder if its not having a good grasp of POV.

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    1. Yes, that could be the case. If you're in deep viewpoint, you are not going to see something the main character doesn't see.

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