Bringing Up the Rear

In armies and art movements, the rear is the less interesting position, away from the real action. Not so in fiction. Whatever comes last in fiction gains in importance. Last is the best place to be, the focal point—think bridal processions. Everything else leads up to the appearance of the star.

Most people realize this about the ends of novels and stories. What may be less obvious is that it’s also true of sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters. By structuring your prose so that the best comes last, you can greatly enhance the overall effect on your readers. Conversely, not putting the best last will weaken your work.

Not all sentences, of course, have arrangement options. Sometimes a character simply says, “Pass the salt,” or an author simply says, “The next day Jeremy left for Boston.” But other sentences can be written in more than one way, and not all ways are equal. Consider these two variations:

1. The Chicago cops knocked on Jeremy’s door and arrested him for murder, although he’d thought that everything was forgotten and that he was certainly safe after forty-two years had passed.

2. Forty-two years later, when Jeremy thought everything was forgotten and he was certainly safe, the Chicago cops knocked on his door and arrested him for murder.

Can you see the difference? The first version, in addition to being awkward, buries its most important point in the middle and ends on an anticlimax, an exact count of elapsed years. The second version, in contrast, puts first all the subordinate facts (Jeremy’s feelings and the time count), so that the sentence can end on the key words: “arrested for murder.” Those words are not only the primary piece of information in the sentence, they are the most emotionally loaded. Save them for the power position.

What’s true of sentences is even truer of paragraphs. Build important paragraphs to a crescendo, with the dominant chord at the end. Michael A. Thomas does this in his recent comic novel, Ostrich:

Ev liked VJ. His energies and enthusiasms were infectious, and he’d always been the perfect antidote to Ev’s bias toward pessimism. Still, he could be exasperating at times, and this was one of those times. Experience told Ev that he should not squander his powers by challenging any of VJ’s outrageous statements. He ought to keep his mouth shut.

Here the author uses the paragraph to explore Ev’s complex feelings about VJ; his friend is “infectious,” “the perfect antidote to pessimism,” “exasperating,” “outrageous.” These contradictions all lead up to the conclusion that Ev should shut up. This conclusion is not a feeling but an action (and a difficult one; everyone knows how hard it can be to bite one’s tongue and say nothing).

Since his intended action is the most important part of Ev’s ruminations, it’s properly placed at the end of the paragraph. Then the author gives it even more punch by making the final sentence short, only seven words, following two much longer sentences. The point is thus emphasized in two different ways.

As with sentences, not all paragraphs need such careful building to a miniclimax. Some paragraphs have no salient point; each piece of information is equal. Such paragraphs need to be clear and interesting, to flow well, but not necessarily to punch at the end.

How do you tell the difference? You consider the paragraph’s content. Does it include anything dramatic (like an arrest for murder), decisive (like choosing to shut up), revelatory (new information) or unusually interesting? If so, put that at the end.

When a scene ends, there is a break: visually on the page but also in the action, in the point of view, or in time and place. Often readers will stop reading at a break, much as TV viewers will use a commercial to either change channels entirely or change activities. The job of the scene ending is to keep readers turning pages, or at the very least, to make them want to return to your story later.

A scene ending can do this in two ways. One is to raise questions about the story so that the reader wants to find out what happens next. The other is to provide a satisfying “Aha!” moment that confirms that a reader’s impressions thus far are in fact correct. Everybody likes being right.

The raising-questions technique is illustrated well by a scene end in Kathleen Winsor’s classic novel Forever Amber. Beautiful but unsophisticated Amber St. Clare is seduced by (or seduces—it’s some of both) Lord Bruce Carlton at a country fair in 17th century England. Carlton is on his way to join the newly restored court of King Charles II in London. After the seduction, Amber innocently assumes that of course Carlton will take her with him. He doesn’t want to, and they argue. The scene ends:

She interrupted him. “I’m not going back! I won’t live here any more, d’ye hear? And if you won’t take me with you—then I’ll go alone!” She stopped suddenly and stood looking up at him, angry and defiant, but pleading, too. “Oh, please—your Lordship. Take me along.”

They stood and stared at each other, but at last his scowl faded away and he smiled. “Very well, you little minx, I’ll take you. But I won’t marry you when we get there—and don’t forget, whatever happens, that I told you so.”

She heard only the first part of what he said, for the last part seemed of no immediate importance. “Oh, your Lordship! Can I go! I won’t be any trouble to you, I swear it!”

“I don’t know about that,” he said slowly. “I think you’ll be aplenty.”

Immediately the reader wants to know: Will Amber be trouble? What kind? Will Carlton ever marry her, despite his words? There’s very little chance that the reader will abandon the book after this scene break.

The second type of scene break doesn’t raise questions as much as reinforce impressions. During the long first scene of Pat Conroy’s best seller The Prince of Tides, Tom and his mother Lila have been arguing. Tom’s sister Savannah has again tried to kill herself. Lila wants Tom to attend to Savannah because Lila is too busy with, among other things, an important dinner party. Throughout the scene the reader builds an impression of this family: a selfish mother and an angry son. After they say truly terrible things to each other, the scene ends:

“Good-bye, son,” my mother said. “Take good care of your sister.”

“Good-bye, Mother,” I answered, and I rose to kiss her on the cheek. “I always have.”

Tom’s last sarcastic barb and his even more sarcastic kiss, a caricature of filial devotion, confirm the reader’s growing impressions: Lila is a bitch, and Tom is really bitter. The scene end adds nothing new to what has gone before, but it emphasizes and confirms it, a clear and satisfying representation of the situation.

To end your scene, ask yourself the following:

  • What questions do I want this scene to raise in the reader’s mind about the rest of the story?
  • What do I want the reader to have learned about the characters or situation?
  • Can I put either of those into the last few paragraphs, so that the scene ends on a small burst of emotion?

    The ends of chapters are like the ends of scenes, only more so. To keep the reader interested, chapters usually end with an uncompleted action, surprise revelation or unresolved emotion. These are the same techniques that old serial movies used to entice movie-goers back the next week for the next installment. The beautiful girl would be tied to the train tracks with the train coming, or the wife would catch her husband kissing someone else.

    But I’m not writing melodrama, you may say. Fiction is more subtle and sophisticated now. Yes, but that merely means that the train and track-tying are more subtle and sophisticated. Now the onrushing train might be an announcement of a divorce, or the introduction of a disrupting new person into a delicate social situation. Each of these, in its own way, leaves the character dangling over an abyss until the next chapter.

    Consider the end of Chapter 1 of Look At Me, by Anita Brookner. The narrator is mousy Frances Hinton, whose life is “dullness and boredom”:

    When I feel swamped in my solitude and hidden by it, physically obscured by it, rendered invisible, in fact, writing is my way of piping up. Of reminding people that I am here. And when I have ordered my characters, plundered my store of images, removed from them all the sadness that I might feel in myself, then I can switch on that current that allows me to write so easily, once I get started, and to make people laugh. That, it seems, is what they like to do. … But since I am on my own in this matter, I must use subterfuge and guile, and with a bit of luck and good management this particular message will never be deciphered, and my reasons for delivering it in this manner will remain obscure.

    Poor Frances! Tied to the tracks of embarrassed plainness and shyness, yet wanting desperately to be noticed. Trying to handle both by hiding behind comic writing. And all the while she sees the train of exposure of her motive, which she finds humiliating. Now there’s a cliffhanger.

    End your chapters with your character facing a conflict, problem or personal disaster. Or perhaps an opportunity or stroke of good luck, which we rightly suspect will cause trouble later. In other words, bring on the anticipated punch.

    And put it last.

    Nancy Kress‘ latest novel is Probability Sun, the middle book of a science-fiction trilogy.

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