Keep 'em hanging
“Just one more chapter...”
Does that sound familiar? We’ve all been there. Fifteen chapters later, it’s four o’clock in the morning and your eyes feel like they’ve been licked by a thousand newborn kittens (it's not as cute as it sounds), and yet you still can’t stop reading. What sort of witchcraft do these authors have over us? Why can’t we just PUT THE DAMN BOOK DOWN AND GO TO SLEEP? Well, chances are they’ve perfected the art of the 'chapter out'.
Chapter outs are something I spend a lot of time over when writing my novels. In fact, I won’t start a chapter until I know how it’s going to end, so I know how to build up the tension and keep the action rushing toward that (hopefully) exciting end point.
Good chapter outs should finish on a revelation, turn the story on its head, or raise the stakes (and preferably do all three), so it keeps the reader on their toes and desperate to find out what happens next. Of course, some endings are more successful than others, and I don't suggest every chapter ends on a 'dum-dum-duuuuuuuum' type cliffhanger, but it should keep the reader curious. Don't give them an excuse to put your book down and go to sleep!
In my opinion, the queen of the 'chapter out' is Suzanne Collins. She's made it something of an art form. If you don’t believe me, here are the chapter outs for the first three chapters in The Hunger Games (by the way, this next part of the post is going to contain some SERIOUS spoilers, so if you haven’t read The Hunger Games, then just assume everything I write next is life changing and awesome, and skip to the bottom...)
Effie Trinket crosses back to the podium, smooths the slip of paper, and reads out the name in a clear voice. And it’s not me.
It’s Primrose Everdeen.
(Chapter 1, Pg 24, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Children's Books)
Holy hell fire! That’s an opening and a half. The reader expects Katniss Everdeen’s name to be read out, so the swerve-a-rooney is not only shocking but it’s amazing character development, as it gives Katniss something to fight for, which isn’t just a ‘selfish’ need to save her own life. Brilliant. *tips hat*
Oh well, I think. There will be twenty-four of us. Odds are someone else will kill him before I do.
Of course, the odds have not been very dependable of late.
(Chapter 2, Pg 40, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Children's Books)
By this point, Peeta is clearly being set up as the love interest, and yet Katniss realizes she’s going to have to kill him. Talk about a doomed love! The reader is instantly gripped. How is this going to be resolved, so we get our ‘happily ever after’? Is it possible that we *gulp* won’t get a happy ending?
“…Haymitch can well be the difference between your life and death!”
Just then, Haymitch staggers into the compartment.
“I miss supper?” he says in a slurred voice. Then he vomits all over the expensive carpet and falls in the mess.
“So laugh away,” says Effie Trinket. She hops in her pointy shoes around the pool of vomit and flees the room.
(Chapter 3, Pg 57, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Children's Books)
By the end of chapter 3, we have all the conflict we need to keep reading to the end: a girl being thrown into the hunger games to save her little sister; a boy who loves her but their romance is doomed; and their only hope is a drunk. How is Katniss going to get out of this situation?
It's amazing how much you can achieve in just a few short sentences, so it's worth taking the time and effort to go through your chapter outs and ask yourself:
a) Does this reveal anything about the character/situation?
b) Does this raise the stakes?
c) Does this turn the story on its head?
By getting your chapters outs nailed, you too can keep readers up all night!
The League of Extraordinary Writers is a group of debut YA authors who write science fiction and dystopian works. The ten of us have works that run the gamut of near-future mind control to far-future space travel, but they do have one thing in common: a future where the Earth we know now is twisted, gone.