First lines are probably the most important thing you have under your belt. Sure, good characterisation and a conflicted plot are great too, but it’s the first lines that are the best thing for it.
I have written about first lines before, but this time I want to talk about something different which is in the first line league: the end of the chapter. Or, the dictionary of mystery and suspense.
Everyone knows that the end of a chapter has to be good. It has to keep the reader reading. You have to do this on the next chapter, and the one after that, and after that etc. Personally, it’s the first chapter that is the cincher. Readers can put the book down after the first chapter and not feel cheated: but after the second, or third, they’re less likely to (in my opinion, anyway. Especially once you get halfway, ’cause then you think ‘hmm, I might as well…). But you still have to keep them reading – or, more precisely, wanting to read.
I’ve got three books I’ve just picked up. Here’s their first last lines:
- ‘And so Maddy Phillips and I met, and so we went to the dance, and so…everything.’ – That Summer by Andrew Greig
- ‘The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.’ – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- ‘”Your heart swears you will,” Halfdan’s daughter told him. “But not your eyes.”‘ – Bracelet of Bones by Kevin Crossley-Holland
All of these three have something in common: they make you want to find out more. You want to find out if Maddy Phillips and this person keep going out together; you want to know if Mrs Bennet’s daughters get married; you want to know why Halfdan’s eyes are not swearing that he will do something.
The endings of the second chapters are equally gripping. But how do you make them so? Here’s some ideas:
- Ask a question. Make sure it’s a question that the readers want to know the answer too. They might not want to know what type of shoes the MC is wearing, but they might want to know how the victim died. This can be a cliché method, so perhaps it’s better for a later chapter; and don’t make the questions have an obvious answer. Your readers have to keep going to find out, they can’t just guess and get it right, otherwise they might shut the book and (shock, horror!) never open it again.
- End on a dramatic statement. ‘It was Uncle Bob’s last ounce of butter’ probably isn’t going to have much of an impact (unless butter is the pivotal plot point in your novel) but something like ‘I accidentally pulled the trigger’ will probably make your readers scramble to turn the page.
- End on speech. “Mum, I got the carrots!” No. “Mum, it’s [antagonist]!” Yes. Speech can be valuable – especially because characters can lie. If your readers know something about your MC that the other characters don’t know, and then the MC lies about it, they’re going to want to know a) what happens and b) why did they lie (unless this has already been spelled out).
- Cliffhangers are your new best friends. Especially if you’re ending a novel and already have the next instalment up your sleeves. Cliffhangers can be good for chapters in the middle of the novel (*cough*the climax*cough*) but don’t use them too constantly, otherwise readers will be bored and they won’t be as dramatic as you’d like them to be. Cliffhangers aren’t necessarily the last line – don’t read the rest of this paragrap if you haven’t read The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan and want to. Basically, Annabeth and Percy fall into Tartarus, and the final chapter is the team deciding what to do. And that’s where it ends. But, it’s still a cliffhanger, because we don’t know what happened and want to.
I wouldn’t necessarily end on description unless it’s unusual. For example, if the MC is describing someone new they just met, you wouldn’t say ‘They had brown hair, brown eyes and freckles.’ You would say ‘They had brown hair, freckles over their nose, and piercing brown eyes with pupils that narrowed once they caught sight of me.’ That is the thing that makes the readers what to read on: mystery and suspense.
Basically, you want the readers to be doing this after every chapter/book, wanting to know the next bit:
Good luck in writing your last lines. You’ll do great! 😀
Questions, comments, thoughts? Shoot! 😀
PS, it’s the first day of NaNoWriMo. What’s your word count?