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They Call it the Middle . . .

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Jan. 8th, 2010 | 08:47 pm

. . . but it's actually full of beginnings and endings! Of chapters, that is. And every one an opportunity!

One hears a lot of suggestions about how a book shouldn't begin: character waking up, cheap hook that doesn't really tie in well, disconnected dialogue, long chunks of description or backstory. The same things don't necessarily apply to openings of chapters after the first. Obviously, you still don't want a cheap hook that doesn't tie in, but "character waking up" is back in the game, especially if the previous chapter ended with the character being knocked unconscious or going to sleep in a strange place. Similarly, dialogue or description can hold a reader's attention better when the reader already has a reason to care. For example, a detailed description of a bank may be hard to pull off as the opening to a book, but work well at the beginning of the chapter after the protagonist decides to rob it.

Chapter openings are great opportunities for changing pace. If one chapter closes with a closely-described scene, the next might start with, "The next day . . ." or "For the rest of the afternoon . . ." or "Over the next few days . . ." You can do this by changing scenes, of course, but a chapter break is cleaner and more decisive. Alternately, you can shift from summary to scene.

And now, a totally unscientific sample set taken from my shelf! (Possible spoilers.)

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Opening of first chapter: In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league-boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is a great misfortune to be born the eldest of three.

Opening of a random chapter (Chapter Seven): Only a particularly bad attack of aches and pains prevented Sophie from setting out for Market Chipping that evening.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Opening of first chapter: No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.

Opening of a random chapter (Chapter Fifteen): Catherine's disposition was not naturally sedentary, nor had her habits ever been very industrious; but whatever might hitherto have been her defects of that sort, her mother could not but perceive them now to be greatly increased.

Mister Monday by Garth Nix

Opening of prologue: They had tried to destroy the Will, but that proved to be beyond their power.

Opening of first chapter: It was Arthur Penhaligon's first day at his new school and it was not going well.

Opening of a random chapter (Chapter Fourteen): The Upper Coal Cellar was a rickety wooden platform on the edge of a blasted plain.

Things to be noticed here:

1. You can get away with setting description as an opening if you're brief and intriguing.

2. You can get away with anything if you're Jane Austen.

3. The second example, Chapter Seven of Howl's Moving Castle, is a scene-to-summary shift. The last example is a shift from scene to description.

Possibly even more important in maintaining pace and reader interest is the chapter ending. After all, what's your "stopping place" when you have to quit reading and go to bed/make supper/take over the world/etc.? Mine is almost always "when I finish this chapter." Imagine at the end of every chapter that some reader will stick the bookmark in here. Is there enough going on to make sure that reader comes hurrying back?

(I'm not covering the end of the book here. Too big. Some other time.)

This post by The Intern lists some examples of how chapter endings keep readers hooked. Since this covers many of the chapter ending types I know, I'm going to skip straight to more Unscientific Examples.

Howl's Moving Castle

Last line of random chapter (Chapter Six): So it wasn't anyone in Cesari's you were talking about!

Last line of another random chapter (Chapter Seventeen): But Howl slithered out of answering by racing through the broom cupboard, shouting for Michael.

Northanger Abbey

Last line of random chapter (Chapter Eleven): At six o'clock, the General having taken his coffee, the carriage again received them; and so gratifying had been the tenor of his conduct throughout the whole visit, so well assured was her mind on the subject of his expectations, that, could she have felt equally confident of the wishes of his son, Catherine would have quitted Woodston with little anxiety as to the How or the When she might return to it.

Last line of another random chapter (Chapter Three): Isabella talked of his attentions; she had never been sensible of any; but Isabella had said many things which she hoped had been spoken in haste, and would never be said again; and upon this she was glad to rest altogether for present ease and comfort.

Mister Monday

Last line of random chapter (Chapter Five): "Come and find Ar-tor!"

Last line of another random chapter (Chapter Twenty-one): "Now you hand over the Key or I will visit whatever torments I can upon you, and many more upon your friends," declared a familiar voice from above, as a shadow of wide-swept wings fell upon Arthur's face.

Of note:

1. The first example is part of an internal monologue spurred by a discovery of the protagonist's.

2. The second example is a slight twist on a teaser like those in INTERN'S post. The protagonist has just asked a question, which is left unanswered.

3. Dayum, Miss Austen. That Chapter Eleven one is a whole paragraph.

4. The last two examples are straightforward. "Protagonist is in danger! Keep reading to find out how - or if - he gets out of it!".

I'm now moved down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where my classes start Monday. I'm especially excited about that YA Literature course.

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