How many times have you said, “Just one more page, and then I’ll go to bed?” when reading a book? Did you say, “A million times!”? Me too! What keeps us reading until we look over at the clock and realize we have to be at work in like, oh, three hours? Obviously it’s a myriad of things: good writing, characterization, pacing, tension, and something that often gets overlooked in the craft of writing: the very last sentence of a chapter.
The fabulous, Jani Grey did a post last week on setting the tone with the first line of a book. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. I thought I’d do a companion piece to that, because lately I’ve been studying not only the first line of the book, but the first and last line of every scene.
The last line of a scene is what keeps a reader, well, reading. They must find out what happens on the next page. This can be tricky, because as writers, we often want to wrap things up in a pretty package at the end of each chapter. Not necessarily for the reader, but for ourselves. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it. A chapter can still be laced with tons of tension and still end with the character not getting what they want, but that last line not only needs to convey just that, but it needs to convey it in a way that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.
In Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction he says, “Does it matter what is the last line of your scene, or the first? Apparently, many authors do not think it does. Most last and first lines in manuscript scenes are quite forgettable. That’s a shame. Like a handshake, an opening and closing line can create impressions and expectations. They can set a tone. They can signal where we’re going or what we’ve done, or serve any number of other useful story purposes. Whatever the case, solid first and last lines can give a scene shape. Creating them deliberately is a discipline worth developing” (Maass 2009, 69).
I’m on my eighth millionth revision of my current novel, a YA Horror. That’s right, eight millionth (well, maybe not, but it sure feels like it). I’m in love with this piece. It’s the most complex thing I’ve ever written, and I’m damn proud of it. But one thing I’ve noticed during this latest revision (and after reading the chapter in Fire in Fiction), is the last sentence of some of my scenes feels flat. Don’t get me wrong, they still have a lot of tension, but it would be much too easy for a reader to say, “This is a good place to stop. I’ll pick up again tomorrow,” which tells me that it’s not good enough. They may go to bed that night thinking about my book, but it won’t be that last line. They could lose their sense of urgency to finish, and what if something happens and they don’t come back to my book?
I’ve been going through each of my chapters and doing a major overhaul on the last sentence of each scene and the first sentence of the scene directly after. I want to share a couple that I think need some work.
This is the last sentence in chapter one, told from the viewpoint of my main character, Jackson:
“Everything spins as darkness envelopes me.”
It’s not terrible, but I feel like it could still use some tweaking. There’s a lot of tension here. This is the start of Jackson’s, “Am I insane? Is that a ghost? A hallucination? What’s wrong with me?” problem and the beginning of her character arc. It leaves the reader with a lot of questions, and they’ll want to know what the hell is going on with this crazy girl. This is good.
Here’s the first sentence of chapter two:
“A faint barrage of noise travels through the broken glass.”
I’m not as happy with this one, and I’m going to change it. Jackson is waking up, but is this really the best way for me to show it? I don’t think so. I want to pull the reader in, and this is too subtle. It needs to be more memorable than her hearing noise through broken glass. Not that this sentence can’t be used directly after, or somewhere else in the paragraph, just not as the first.
We all know there are a ton of craft techniques we can use to make our writing stronger, and honestly, it can be overwhelming. If you’re drafting, don’t worry about this kind of stuff yet. Keep it in mind if you can, but focus on getting through your draft. I’ve found it easier to make a note of the things I want to work on after I’ve drafted, and then afterward, I’ll work on this kind of stuff. Everyone will have different ways of doing this, and they’re all right. Do what works best for you, but don’t think this is something you have to do immediately. I wanted to throw this out there, because I know how hard it can be to draft and think, “I have to worry about this, too?” It can be paralyzing.
With that said, have you gone through and looked at the beginning and last sentence of all your scenes? Do they leave the reader craving more? I’d love to hear some of them. If you feel comfortable, please share the last sentence of your first chapter and the first sentence of your chapter two.