Friday, April 2, 2021

Enter Late, Leave Early--A Great Piece of Writing Advice for Chapters

Not everyone wants to pay for an MFA degree, and I didn't either, for a long time, until I started writing fiction and realized I knew nothing about it. I'd been published for years in memoir and nonfiction, but fiction was truly another animal. I researched schools, found one, got accepted, and began. In those two years, I learned a lot I didn't know, but one particular piece of advice reshaped my understanding of chapters, scenes, and books.

It was this: Enter late, leave early.

I learned, after graduation, that this slogan is widely known among screenwriters. Less so among novelists or short story writers, although it's just as valuable to us. William Goldman and David Morell wrote it as "jump in late, leave early." It applies to scenes, to chapters, to the entire book, in my mind. But I find it most useful in chapters.

Coming from a nonfiction background, I tended to wrap up my chapters. I also felt I needed to set up the chapter with some kind of preamble, description, etc. It created two problems. The chapter action happened late, after my readers had fallen asleep. And the ending stayed around longer than anyone needed.

Worse, in a book, it caused my reader to stop reading. The chapter was so neatly wrapped up, all questions answered, there was a natural pause. Sometimes, actually often, the reader never picked up the book again to read on.

The adviser in my MFA program opened my eyes to this at the end of the two years, as she was reading my thesis, a novel that later was published as Qualities of Light. She told me if I took this advice to heart, changing both the entry and the exit to my chapters, it would make my book a page turner.

I believed her, but it took me years to make those chapter changes. I had to get rid of such (to me) good writing, words I'd slaved over!

But when I did, I found the book much more engaging, even to my beleaguered writer's group, who'd read it so many times.

When I began submitting it, I got the same feedback about the opening of the book. One editor, who declined the manuscript but sent detailed and very helpful comments, suggested I begin at chapter 5. "The story needs to start later," she said. And she was right too. Once I made that change, much harder than the individual chapter changes, the book was accepted by a different publisher within a month.

Enter late, leave early. What does that actually mean? How can you use this in your own manuscript?

A chapter is a sequence of scenes that carry the reader to some new level of understanding about the story or the book's topic. Look at your chapters for where the climax happens--the scene or moment that makes the chapter worth its page space--and count backwards. If you have a lot of lead time before we get there, ask yourself why. Are you, like me, convinced that the reader needs to be prepared? Rather than jump in, as Goldman and Morrell suggest, are you putting your reader to sleep?

Jump in late, or "enter late," means to begin your chapter in the middle of the action, rather than with a preamble. Why? The reader gets engaged faster.

They'll more likely read on.

Leave early means to end the chapter with a question. Something unfinished.

Here's another trick I learned as I began editing other writers' manuscripts. I tested the idea of moving the last page to the opening of the next chapter. Often, this created the "leave early" that I craved as a reader. It forced me to read on. n books, the last thing you want, as I learned after spending a lot of money for an MFA, is chapters that are wrapped up. You want the reader to read into the next chapter, right? Not close the book at the end of a chapter and perhaps not pick it up again. So create something unresolved. If your chapter answers a question, as often happens in strong chapter structure, be sure to pose another one at the very end--create another problem, so we'll read on to find out more.

In nonfiction, a chapter concludes more overtly but most nonfiction books also create a hook at the end of the chapter to the next one. Nonfiction chapters often end with more completion of thought, while fiction and memoir leave something deliberately unfinished. But creating that something more is equally important in all types of books.

So, as we build chapters, we need to consider three things:

1. Choose an island or scene that jumps right into action.
2. Have enough scenes that something changes in the character or narrator, creating a narrative arc.
3. End with something unresolved.

These are the building blocks. One long scene can create a good chapter, but it must satisfy these three requirements.

Before I graduated, I also learned a fourth tip: craft good transitions between the scenes in a chapter, as well as the ending of one chapter to the beginning of the next. These are called transitions, and they create a smooth ride for the reader.

My favorite writers are aces at transitions. Transitions can be a simple as one sentence, an image, a line of dialogue, an object that shows up repeatedly, a setting feature, and a host of other elements.

A rather obvious example I saw recently in a novel: Oranges are peeled at the end of one chapter and an orange glow is in the sky at sunrise in the beginning of the next. This worked well because the writer changed narrators between those two chapters, but the repeated image allowed me to move along without a hiccup.

Transitions are not just visual: they can be smells, sounds, heat or cold, light or dark, a piece of furniture or a room or an object--whatever has meaning and can be repeated without too much fanfare. It feels mechanical, I know. But it can make a world of difference. Like any device, using it with awareness is the key.

Experiment with these tools this week in your project. See what makes sense, what makes your writing better. They are fun to play with--and worth studying in books you admire!

Like me, you may not even notice them used in these admired books at first. That's good writing.

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