Same Time, Same Channel

Come back again next week for another thrilling episode!

Let’s revisit an idea we started a few days ago, about the chapter and the work of being chapterish. I’ll begin by quoting the novelist Peter Ho Davies (who has a new book coming in the first week of January, hooray!), from his essay “Only Collect:”

Novels, in the most basic sense, whether we’re talking about Jane Austen or John Grisham, are machines to make us keep reading. If we love a novel, again irrespective of genre, we’re apt to say things like “I couldn’t put it down,” “I stayed up all night to finish it,” “I couldn’t stop turning the pages.” The most fundamental novelistic skill, one might argue, is the ability to keep us reading, which perhaps explains why novelists – even gifted ones – aren’t great at endings, at stopping us reading.

And yet, most novels DO stop us reading, several times. Every time we reach the end of a chapter, we are not merely permitted, but indeed encouraged to at least go to the fridge for a refill; maybe to close the book and lay it on the nightstand in the trust that we can rejoin it again tomorrow.

Why would a writer do that? As has often been said, we can lose a reader at an almost infinite number of moments in a book; why would we voluntarily give them an off-ramp? Why wouldn’t we just make a single giant chapter, like the world’s biggest bag of Doritos, and ask our readers to rip it open and gorge themselves in a single sitting? (I have no idea, for instance, how to read a book like Ducks, Newburyport. A single continuous thousand-page sentence? Any moment of cessation would seem arbitrary if the author isn’t controlling it, a sort of no mas surrender to exhaustion as we drop the book from our weary hands.)

Generosity isn’t about quantity, and it isn’t about demanding the reader’s unending attention, like the boorish party guest who just won’t shut up about the five primary varieties of beard oil. We’re inviting a conversation of sorts with our reader, and we need to encourage their active participation.

The conclusion of a chapter consolidates its ideas or its arc of action. It doesn’t necessarily resolve it; in fact, usually not. We almost always know we’re going to come back to that same problem again, that our characters aren’t done with that concern yet (or that concern hasn’t finished with our characters). But it closes a scene or a moment of a relationship by asking the reader to consider a question.

Sometimes, as in the cliffhangers of old, that question is both overt and simple. Will Dudley DoRight arrive before Nell is run over by the train? Will Batman and Robin save themselves from the evils of Mr. Freeze, or will they be turned into human Frosty Freezies? “Has the diabolical Mr. Freeze outwitted the Dynamic Duo after all? Hope for a miracle, and stay frozen in your seats until tomorrow…”

But more often, the question is implied.

  • It might be an open-ended question: how will this turn out? (knowing that there are any number of answers to that, not just two.) Ideally, if we care about the characters, an implied second question would be how do I hope this will turn out?
  • It might be a larger, broader question: will things get better for our protagonist, or will they get worse? Are we engaged in a tragedy of declining circumstances, or a comedy of rising circumstances?
  • It might be a question of how the two or three or six threads that we’ve launched will ultimately come together and reveal themselves to be one. Of how Chekhov’s gun, introduced in the first act, will be ultimately fired in the third.
  • It might be a question about ourselves as readers. How would I feel at that point? What would I do in a circumstance like this? Have I ever been as dumb as that, and been as oblivious about it?

I think that a chapter leaves us considering what’s been and what’s to come. It’s a place designed for the reader to get out their figurative (or literal) journal and do some work themselves.