A good chapter is like a treasure map. It will lure you in. It will lead you through uncharted territory. And, at the end, it will not yield the treasure — it will just make you want it more.
What is the structure to a chapter? Ideally each chapter will cover an event, a character, or a story line with internal cohesion. Its first paragraphs often stake out the new territory of those things. It’s middle portions relate to those first paragraphs and build with details and progress of the overall story. But how should a chapter end?
Should it try to loop back to the beginning paragraphs and complete a story arc so that the chapter is internally complete? Should it act like a cliffhanger a la The Da Vinci Code, a sort of door-slams-shut and no-way-out nail bite? Maybe, if you are writing chase scenes.
Perhaps the end of a chapter should not end much of anything so much as the scene of a child waving goodbye on the way to summer camp, a hint of reminiscence for what led everyone up to that point tinged with hope, anxiety even, or fear for what lies ahead.
A good rule of thumb when editing manuscripts is to read three chapters at a time. Consider whether the first of the three concludes by hinting, implying, or threatening some event that is postponed until further notice. The succeeding chapters can either build on that unresolved question or begin a different story line while, at the same time, weaving in issues, characters, or events from the first of the three chapters. Readers get a great sense of reward by picking up a character, story line, or event that was hinted at several chapters previously. But, if there is no break from the end of one chapter and the content of the next, or if the chapter is internally complete, the story telling falters.
In The March, Doctorow’s novel of Sherman’s march through the South, a chapter begins with Sherman’s telegram to Lincoln: “I beg to present to you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition. Also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”
The novel had already marched us from Atlanta to Savannah, had burned houses, buried men and horses, freed slaves, torched plantations, pillaged women, and created baggage train camp followers. The capture of Savannah, intact and with spoils, was a welcome relief. Doctorow then wrote the chapter with Sherman in Savannah, planning to attack up the Carolinas, where the novel will lead. But, in concluding it, he told us that:
“At the end of the evening Sherman went to his rooms mellow with wine and feeling more relaxed than he had in days. He was humming the overture to The Flying Dutchman. Some newspapers were newly arrived from Ohio. He lit a cigar and, expecting to amuse himself with the local gossip, sat back and read in the Columbus, Ohio, Times, that Charles Sherman, the six-month-old son of General and Mrs. William Tecumseh Sherman, had died of the croup.”
Doctorow’s map of impersonal death and destruction had led us to Savannah, as we knew it would. It pointed to the end of the war, as we know it will. It is that middle of the treasure hunt that reminds us that between the beach and the palm trees there are twelve dead men on a dead men’s chest. The war that Sherman had taken to the south had taken Sherman as well. The prize, the end of the war, would come, but even he began to pay the price. He, however, and we, would go on.
Writing is an art, not a science. Even the most linear of works, such as a high school chemistry textbook, must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is that middle part that must keep the reader hunting for the nuggets of your prose.
Write your thousand words, and end them with a hint of what’s to come. Good luck.