Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guest in Progress: Becky Wolsk on Endings

I met Becky Wolsk in one of my workshops at the Writer’s Center, where we read chapters of an early version of her novel-in-progress…which continued to progress nicely after the class ended. I have no doubt that Becky will be a published novelist in the future—along with her talent and skill, she has shown herself to be an incredibly hard worker and a great student of the craft of writing, as you will see by her guest essay about how to write effective chapter endings.

You can also read Becky’s very popular post about resources for the agent search here.

All’s Well that Ends Well
by Becky Wolsk

For the past two years I have written and revised my second novel, Six Words. I documented this experience in a writing journal so I could absorb and keep track of failed experiments and victories.

This guest-blog entry distills what I learned about scene and chapter endings, including lessons I learned from Leslie’s novel A Year and a Day*:

In the summer of 2009, a critique reader suggested I improve my chapter endings. Since my novel is called Six Words, I came up with this six-word goal:

Provide cliffhangers without braking too abruptly.

I decided to study both scene endings and chapter endings. I chose four very different books, not only for variety’s sake, but also because they are unputdownable reads.

1) Nevil Shute’s Ordeal (Also published under title What Happened to the Corbetts)-- A thriller about a British family’s struggle to survive the World War II bombing of Southampton, England.

2) Grace Metalious’s Return to Peyton Place -- A potboiler about secrets in small town New England.

3) Augusten Burrough’s Dry – A memoir about alcoholism.

4) Leslie’s A Year and a Day -- A literary novel about a fifteen-year-old girl’s grief and recovery after her mother’s suicide.

These authors create endings that serve four functions:

1) Provide foreboding and suspense.

The third chapter of Metalious’s Return to Peyton Place ends with a punch after seemingly happy newlyweds exchange dull remarks~~

“Hurry, darling,” said Ted Carter to the girl whose arm he held. “I don’t want my wife to freeze to death during her very first winter in Peyton Place.”

"The girl laughed up at him. “Remind me to buy a pair of flat-heeled shoes tomorrow. I can’t keep up with those long legs of yours when I’m wearing high heels. I saw a shop back there—Thrifty something—I’ll go there tomorrow.”

"Ted Carter did not laugh with his wife and his steps grew even more hurried.

“They don’t sell shoes at the Thrifty Corner,” he said, and holding tightly onto his wife’s arm, he tried desperately not to think of Selena."~~

At the end of the fifth chapter, Metalious kicks up the drama, then uses the last sentence to kick it a notch higher, like Emeril Lagasse getting carried away with jiggers of hot sauce~~

"She picked [a notebook] up and began to leaf through it, and her face paled as she read. Roberta had mapped out a plan for murder. A plan so simple and stupid that it might just work for those very reasons. Jennifer’s heart pumped hard and fast as she read, and it was not until she heard a car stop outside that she raised her head. They were back.

"In a flash, Jennifer locked the desk and ran upstairs. She buried the key ring deep in the box of soap flakes and ran to her room. Before she got back into bed, she looked out the window and was just in time to see Roberta coming up the walk. You sly old bitch, she thought. You jealous old bitch. What a surprise you have in store for you!

"Lying in bed, listening to Ted’s footsteps coming up the stairs, Jennifer thought, This is going to be a memorable Thanksgiving Day.

"Robert had scheduled her murder for tomorrow."~~

2) Introduce the next plot twist.

At the end of the second chapter in Nevil Shute’s Ordeal, the residents of Southampton are reeling from their new normal (bombings and food shortages), when another unforeseen and scarily exotic catastrophe hits.

The chapter ends as Mr. Corbett says goodbye to his wife for the morning~~

“You can leave the washing up—I’ll do that.” He had no thought of going to his office.

"He went out his front door. In the street he met Mr. Littlejohn returning to his house, grey and troubled. He said, “You’ve heard the news?”

“No,” said Corbett.

“Cholera,” said Mr. Littlejohn.

"Corbett stared at him, wide-eyed.

“There’s been an outbreak of cholera down Northam way. Over seventy cases, so they say. They’ve got patrols on all the roads. Nobody’s to leave the city till he’s been inoculated.”~~

3) Show protagonists struggling and discovering epiphanies that benefit both the novel’s characters and readers.

At the end of Chapter 2 from Dry, Augusten Burroughs feels good about surviving an intervention at work. He has agreed to go to rehab, but isn’t sure he will follow through. He views the forced leave of absence as a vacation, and can’t wait to get drunk that evening since he won’t have to show up for work the next morning~~

"What I really like to do is get drunk at home so I don’t feel so nervous and inhibited, then go out to some dive bar and talk to guys. You never know who you’ll meet or where you’ll end up. It’s like this fucking incredible vortex of possibility. Anything can happen at a bar. Unlike Greer, I like options, I like to not really know what’s going to happen next. Resolutions can be very dull.

"Then it hits me. An awful glitch. Something so unfathomable that it dawns on me with a slow blackness that makes me feel hollow.

"In order to get away with this, I may actually have to do something so horrifying that I can barely admit it to myself.

"I may actually have to go to rehab."~~

In Leslie Pietrzyk’s A Year and a Day, the protagonist is fifteen-year-old Alice, who questions everything in the wake of her mother’s suicide. When Alice finds out a secret about her brother, it softens her outlook. Her epiphany appears at the end of a scene, which makes the epiphany more noticeable and ends the scene on a strong note~~

"Will wasn’t supposed to do things like that. Not Will, not my brother. He hadn’t cried at Mama’s funeral, and I had thought that was so brave and strong of him, so perfect. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just…lonely." ~~

4) Provide contingent conclusions to increase the final conclusion’s payoff.

From Augusten Burroughs’s Dry~~

“A Diet Coke,” I say after a long pause.

"The bartender looks at me for just an instant longer. It’s as if he has been able to read my mind, knows what’s going on inside of me. And it occurs to me that he’s probably seen this many times before: the demons wrestling.

"When he sets my Diet Coke on the bar he says, “Enjoy.”

"I suck through the thin straw. I suck until only the ice is left." ~~

This ending is superficially conclusive, like ice on a winter pond. It glazes the surface but can’t support a skater’s weight yet.

In Burroughs’s case, when he orders the Diet Coke, he is far enough into his recovery to ask for something benign in a bar. But in the last two sentences of the chapter, his tone reveals he is white-knuckling his sobriety. He made the right decision this time, for now, but will he relapse and when? We’ll have to read on to find out.

The final chapter’s ending in Dry pays off the tension from the “Diet Coke” ending. I don’t want to quote it so I won’t give the brilliance of the ending away, but the gist is that Burroughs is no longer a lonely guy sipping soda in a bar.

At the end of chapter one in A Year and a Day, Alice makes a tentative conclusion~~

"…that’s all I wanted now, answers to questions. Not voices in my head. Not more secrets. Just facts and truth. Maybe everything would end up being as simple as orange Kool-Aid."~~

In this chapter-ender, Alice explicitly states what is at stake for her, and by extension, what the whole novel will be about. Tension throughout the whole first chapter leads Alice to make this point. She is rebelling against her mother, who had frustrated Alice by scoffing~~

“Anyone can look up in a book facts about slugs. But a bunch of facts won’t tell you anything worth knowing.”~~

The goal of chapter one’s ending is to promise a book full of secrets and revelations to the reader.
The final chapter’s ending fulfills this promise made in chapter one. Alice has a new female role model in her life, Mrs. Lane, her biology teacher. Alice confides in her because she is still looking for answers, and at first Mrs. Lane’s answer seems disappointingly cryptic and clinical, like the facts that Alice’s mother scorned in the novel’s first chapter. But then Mrs. Lane transforms a scientific fact into a truth that is interpersonal, rich, and enlightening.

About: Becky Wolsk is a write-at-home mother and quilter. Her writing has appeared in Cookie Magazine, Flashquake (where her story was an editor’s pick), Literary Mama,, What If?, Glass Quarterly, Brain Child, Imperfect Parent, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, and in arts and humanities databases. Her second novel, Six Words, is about sustainable living and unsustainable lying. The protagonist, Sophia Green, is a curriculum designer and scavenger huntress. She works for the fictitious George Washington Carver Public Charter School in Washington DC, where most lessons spiral around the school garden. Becky's website is

*Ed. note: Extremely flattering, Becky…thank you!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.