word craft


Salted peanuts

The oth­er day, when talk­ing to a fifth grade class, a boy asked, “How do you know when to end a chap­ter?” A good ques­tion. A good book has a com­plex struc­ture, with dif­fer­ent struc­tur­al beats. Those beats might be the turn of the plot, a great sen­tence (or para­graph), a shift in mood, an emo­tion­al high (or low) point, a rev­e­la­tion for the read­er. You can think of oth­ers. One of the strongest beats is the chap­ter end­ing. It should be a pause that makes you (the read­er) not want to stop. Yet, it is often the pause that allows you to stop, to muse upon what you just read, to catch your breath, to go to sleep. It must be per­fect­ly bal­anced so as to allow the read­er to absorb what has just hap­pened, yet encour­age con­tin­u­a­tion. My style tends toward the “cliff-hang­er” chap­ter end­ing. (That word comes from the mid-20th cen­tu­ry world of movies.) When I wrote Beyond the West­ern Sea, my longest book (680 pages), I struc­tured it so that each short chap­ter would (hope­ful­ly) com­pel the read­er to con­tin­ue to read on. My edi­tor and I used the metaphor of a bowl of salt­ed peanuts. You can­not stop eat­ing them—or in this case, read­ing the next chapter—until you’ve gone through the whole bowl—or book. Mind­ful of this I just restruc­tured the book on which I am working.

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