richard harland's writing tips

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4. Momentum




I used to think of chapters like boxes, containing a certain amount of material. Now I think of them as channels through which the story pours. Too much completion at the end of a chapter kills narrative momentum.

I guess the extreme of non-completion would be the cliffhanger. There’s a sort of convention that allows you to end a chapter at the very moment where it ought not to end. Here are the final lines of Chapter 51 in The Black Crusade:

[Raveena] shrieked in triumph. But the casket slipped from her grip with the violence of the blow. In slow, slow motion it tilted and fell to the floor.
 ‘Let’s go!’
I foresaw the crash, the breaking glass, the escape of the essence. I tried to pull Volusia away, but she was staring in horrified fascination.
Then the casket hit the floor, and the world was changed forever.

End of chapter! A frozen moment. The reader has to turn to Chapter 52 to see what happened next.

I like cliffhangers, but not all the time. A cliffhanger at the end of every chapter looks too deliberate, too artificial. What’s more, a cliffhanger at the end of one chapter puts an action cliff hangingpeak at the start of the next chapter—which can lead to an undesirable mid-chapter trough.

I think it’s okay for the local action to wrap up at the end of a chapter, so long as there are deeper currents pushing on ahead. For example, Harry and Cath find a site to camp, put up their tent, talk and fall asleep. It’s hard to avoid some sort of break when your characters fall asleep. But there needs to be unfinished business! Perhaps Harry and Cath talk about the goal of their journey, perhaps they’re becoming romantically involved, perhaps they argue and store up resentments. Perhaps all three …

A cliffhanger raises a question that receives an answer at the start of the next chapter. The deeper currents I’m suggesting may be left behind at the start of the next chapter, only receiving an answer over several chapters. But we still have to keep turning the pages to see how things turn out.






(iii) TWISTS






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1997 - 2010 Richard Harland.