Critique Technique, part 7: scene and chapter endings

I’ve written about beginnings in the last couple of posts. For the next couple, I’ll discuss the endings of sections, chapters, and the entire piece. This article will look at the first two.

Articles and short stories are often divided into sections, sometimes even into chapters. Books of all kinds are almost always divided into chapters, and those chapters often have sections within them.

Why would a chapter, article, or short story be divided into sections? In fiction, sections contain the action in a specific time and place, from a particular point of view, or focused on a certain character. In non-fiction, a section may focus on these or on a specific topic that could be one of several within the piece. When the scene, time, point of view, key character, or topic changes, the author can use a transition—usually a word, phrase, or sentence that carries the reader across the change (something I’ll cover in a later article)—or she can start a new section.

The end of a section has two purposes. First, like its beginning, it needs to create curiosity in the reader, to make him wonder what’s next and so propel him into the next section. The second purpose is to make things worse for the central character, or maybe all of the characters, of that section. (Then, if the piece switches to another character or set of characters, that creates even more tension in the reader because his curiosity isn’t satisfied immediately—he has to wait to find out what’s going to happen. Oh, how sneaky, evil, and devious we writers are!)

So, how can a section’s ending create that curiosity and tension, and how can you, the reviewer, tell when it hasn’t? Two words: “obstacles,” and “frustration.” Obstacles keep the section’s protagonist from reaching her immediate and long-term (story) objectives. (I’ll write more about objectives later, too.) At the end of every section, she should have more of them in her way than she had when the section started. That should increase her frustration, leaving her wondering, “Now how am I going to overcome this, along with everything else?” The reader should be asking that, too, whether she’s sympathetic to the protagonist’s cause or not.

In fiction, the writer’s job is to keep making things worse for the story’s major characters (protagonist(s) and antagonist(s))—to raise the stakes for them—right up to the climax. In non-fiction, especially creative non-fiction, the author’s job is similar—to relate how things kept getting worse. Even in something as direct as a how-to article, for example, at the end of each section the author can present an obstacle the do-it-yourselfer could face.

Now, that new obstacle doesn’t have to be super-dramatic, the famous “cliffhanger.” In fact, in a chapter or short work, cliffhangers at the end of each section are probably impossible or will make the reader stop believing the story. The new obstacle can be something simple, but it still has to be an obstacle.

Here’s an example. In my own novel-in-progress, one chapter has over 30 scenes as the focus jumps between five different characters. In one scene, my reporter, Lisa, needs to find the leader of a rally, Sarah, after the rally has turned into a riot, something Sarah didn’t plan. Unfortunately for Lisa, she’s on a balcony on the old North Carolina State Capitol building, while Sarah was on a stage fifty yards distant, but has now been hustled away. Lisa doesn’t know where Sarah’s gone and has to get through the chaos of the riot to try to find her. Sarah’s disappearance isn’t a huge obstacle for Lisa in the larger scheme of the story, but it does frustrate her immediate desire to get Sarah’s reaction to the violent collapse of her rally. This leaves the reader wondering, “What will Lisa do? Will she find Sarah? What will she do if she does? What will she do if she doesn’t?” (The next section, of course, shifts to another character entirely, building my reader’s tension as she waits to find out what happens with Lisa and Sarah.)

Those are the requirements for the end of a section. They’re the same for the end of a chapter, only more so. Cliffhangers are appropriate here, but probably not at the end of every chapter. Still, the author wants the reader biting his fingernails, wondering what’s going to happen next, and having—just having—to turn the page.

All right. Now you’re the reviewer and your job is to decide whether the end of a section or chapter has done its job. Here are questions for you to ask:

  • Did the ending of this section or chapter make things worse for the character(s)?
    • Did it put new obstacles in their way, or make existing ones worse?
    • Did it add frustrations, or make existing ones worse, as the character(s) try to reach their goals?
  • Did the ending increase my tension? Did it make me have to know what happens next?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” figure out how the author failed to raise the stakes for her characters and/or how she failed to increase your need to know more. Then offer suggestions on how to make the piece better.

What else do you look for in the end of a section or chapter to decide whether it’s been a success or not?


Critique Technique, part 4

In the last couple of posts, I’ve written about recording and reporting your emotional response to a piece as the first, and easiest, way to start providing feedback to your fellow author. (Which leads me to wonder, what the heck is the feminine counterpart to “fellow?” Fellah? Fellette? Fellesse?)

Now it’s time to get down to the “nits and grits”—the nitty-gritty details—and this is going to keep us busy for many weeks to come. We’ll look at Things Needing To Be Fixed and Things That Worked Well because both are important to an author.

In the area of Things Needing To Be Fixed, we’ll look at beginnings and endings, characters and characterization, setting, plot, flashbacks and backstory, dialog, narrative, pace, description, mechanics errors, and general story-telling technique. Whew, that’s a lot! “But wait, there’s more!” Much, much more, as you’ll see in a minute.

In the area of Things That Worked Well, we’ll cover a lot of the same territory but focus on why something worked, rather than why it didn’t. This is important! Writers need positive strokes, to hear that something they wrote actually “worked,” that it moved the reader in some way. This is why “critique” is not criticism—its point is NOT to merely find all the ways a work failed, didn’t live up to its potential, etc., but also to identify the successes so the author can, we hope, repeat them.

For all of the Things Needing To Be Fixed, you’ll want to ask and answer the following four questions:

Did this problem happen? I know this seems like an odd question, but starting next time we’ll get into the 50+ (yes, 50+) different potential problem areas. As you’re reading a piece, not all of them will come up. At least, let’s hope not! So you’re going to be on the lookout for all of those problems. When you find one, and your brain goes ping! (or ah-ha!, or uh-oh), that’s when you’ll move on to the next question. Does this sound hard? Don’t worry, it is, at first. That’s one good thing about introducing the problem areas little by little: you only have to absorb one or a few at a time. And with practice, it does get easier.

Where did it happen? Be specific! Identify the spot right on the manuscript. Then, in your notes in the margin (you DO write margin notes, don’t you?), you’ll answer the next two questions.

What was the exact nature of the problem? Again, be as specific as possible. WARNING: this requires actually thinking about the writing, not just letting it go in one eye and out the other! J Seriously, this is a very writerly task, and it’s a learned skill, not one that comes easily or naturally to a lot of people. If it takes you some time to learn it, that’s OK. As you do, you’ll find yourself applying it to your own writing as well, and that’s the most powerful benefit of critiquing other people’s work.

What can the author do to fix it? Another tough question! This one’s tricky, too, because it’s not your task to (re)write someone else’s piece your way. Instead of saying, “If I was writing this story, I would have written…,” go back to bullet #3, try to determine what the writer was trying to accomplish, and then propose a way that he or she might do that. This is also a learned skill, so don’t be concerned if you have trouble doing it at first. If you’re a member of a writers’ group, listen to your fellow writers and how they try to accomplish this task. What seems to work? What doesn’t? The author’s verbal and non-verbal responses to these suggestions—and your own—will tell you a lot. There’s one last thing that makes this task tricky: the author is free to ignore your suggestions! Even if you think you’re right right RIGHT, if the author thinks you’re wrong wrong WRONG, guess who wins? Not you. At least, not in the near term. Do your best, then tell your ego to sit down and be quiet. Everyone will be happier for it.

OK, that’s it for this time. Next time we’ll start looking at problems with beginnings and endings.

When you critique or review a piece, are there any overall techniques you use or questions you keep in mind?