Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thoughts on Chapter Endings

I'm a subscriber to the Dorothy L. listserv for mystery lovers. I recommend it for anyone who enjoys reading or writing mysteries. You subscribe to the listserv (my subscription is through my Google Mail account) and receive their digests on a myriad of mystery topics (reviews, discussions of plot devices, etc.)

A recent discussion on the listserv centered around the members' pet dislikes regarding mystery novels. There was mention of thrillers that invoked violence on children and pets (obviously you need to tread lightly with these topics--when you bring innocents in, you risk alienating a core group of readers), the sleuth having information that's not made known to the reader (violating the "fair-play" rules of mystery writing), and even a couple of readers who disliked cliffhanging ends of chapters.

The last "dislike" surprised me. There's nothing I like better than being forced by the author to keep reading a book. I have lots of great memories of staying up too late at night because I had to find out what happened next.

I think some readers feel manipulated when there are too many cliffhangers. It's sort of like the Saturday morning serial movies of the obvious ploy to keep you reading. If every chapter ends with a knife at someone's throat, you're going too far . Tension in a story is best if it's built gradually. If your chapters are constantly ending at life and death moments, then your device risks yanking your reader out of the story by revealing the strings that you're pulling.

On the other hand, I think it's totally acceptable to end some chapters with the unknown or an element of excitement. NEVER end a chapter with someone going to bed for the day (your reader might have the idea to do the same thing.)

Great points to end chapters are: the discovery of a victim's body (usually more than one in a book), the discovery of a startling piece of information about a suspect (frequently a red herring), the point the sleuth realizes whodunnit, and --yes--even once where the protagonist faces the killer one on one in a moment of danger.