Monday, March 26, 2012

Completion, and Resonance: why the first chapter is like the last

I finished For Love, For Power last night. It's hard to describe how I feel about it - not only is it a wonderful feeling, but the intense focus and drive required to get to this point has released, leaving me feeling rather shaken. Part of the reason for this is that I've been working on Varin for so long, but this is the very first time that I've completed a novel in this world using all of my skills as a mature writer.

When I got to the last chapter, something interesting happened. I discovered that I needed to go back and look at the first chapter again. In fact, I sent the first chapter off to my lovely and amazing friend Janice Hardy, and she gave me some comments about it, and then I revised the whole first chapter before beginning the last.

If you've been writing for any significant length of time, you've probably heard people say that last chapters should come full circle, and that they should resemble first chapters in some critical way. I think there are a couple of main reasons for this. The first is completion; the second is resonance.

Completion is what I'm calling the internal logic of story arcs, which brings the final chapter to reflect upon the first. The grand arc of the story will involve the inception of something - a quest, a goal, a process - in the first chapter, and then achieve completion in the last. The quest will be completed, the goal achieved, the process will resolve itself into a new state. If you get to your last chapter and you find that you've veered off into some place where the ending has no clear relation to what happened at the beginning, you might have a problem. In my own case, looking at where my protagonist arrived at the end of the story showed me where the endpoint of his overall arc was, and that helped me to go back and clarify what his initial state should be, and launch him into it more effectively.

Resonance is a language issue, and something that I feel instinctively. Essentially what it means is that little phrases from the beginning of the book should show up in your last chapter. These can be small, but they are terribly important for the overall effect on the reader. I'll give you two examples. In Chapter 1, Tagret's brother walks in on him while he's bathing to tell him about political developments, and with each advance in his logic he keeps saying, "and you know what that means..."  Then in Chapter 36 he's whispering to Tagret and he says, "and you know what that means..." again. Part of the resonance comes from the repetition of the phrase. The other part comes from the change that the reader observes in Tagret's reaction to it, because in Chapter 1 he basically blows him off, while in Chapter 36 he responds, "Tell me." What it does is act like a waving flag to show the reader that what they expect has actually occurred: between the beginning and end of the book, things have fundamentally changed. And speaking of change, in the first chapter Tagret is going to a concert hoping that the music he hears will make a difference in his life - he has a moment where he whispers to himself (and to the evening), "Change everything." Then in the last chapter - and the last line - he gets to say "We're going to change everything." His entire thematic story arc is encapsulated there, and thus the parallel phrases cause a resonance that extends all the way back through the entire book.

It's something to think about.


  1. I so needed to read this right now! Thank you for being my writing angel :-)