1001 Chapters: Lessons Learned from Scheherazade

1001 Chapters: Lessons Learned from ScheherazadeAt some point in your life you’ve probably run across a story from 1001 Nights. Aladdin and the magic lamp, Sindibad of the Sea, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, all came from these tales.

Legend has it that these rich, colorful, stories were all the work of Scheherazade, told to her husband to keep him from lopping off her head.

Here’s a short recap in case your memory is as good (read: bad) as mine.

Betrayed by his first wife’s infidelity, King Shahriyar decides to marry a virgin for one night, and behead her in the morning, so he won’t suffer the same humiliation again.

Poor Scheherazade is picked by the king to be queen for a day. Our intrepid heroine doesn’t want to die (imagine), so she cooks up a plan with her sister. The night of the wedding Scheherazade’s sister requests a story. Scheherazade gladly complies and tells a tale that mesmerizes the King. When dawn breaks Scheherazade stops in the middle of her tale.

The King has to know how the story ends, so he spares her life for another night. This process repeats for 1001 nights.

You might not be writing to save your life, but you should craft your story like you are.

What does that mean?

A HOOK TO LIVE FOR

Put yourself in Scheherazade’s place – the specter of death is hanging over you. What do you think the chances are that the King will let you continue your tale, if it doesn’t get off to a wiz bang start?

The lesson here is simple – pick the best opening for your story. Hook your reader in the first page, paragraph, or, if possible, sentence.

For example:

A) Eva slumped against the wall. “Dear God, if I ever get out of this cell, I promise, I’ll never help anyone move a dead body again.”

B) Today is Friday and I always do my grocery shopping on Friday.

Which opening would get you to read further?

I pick “A”.

“A” has interest. It make’s you ask, “why was she helping someone move a dead body?”

The only question “B” raises is, “Why should I care?”

Look at the manuscript you’re working on. Does it begin in a mire of back story or in the heat of action? Are you out of the gate and half way around the track at the beginning? If not ask yourself, is this really the best place to start?

DIDN’T YOU SEE THE CLIFF?

What else does Scheherazade teach us?

When telling a story for your life – leave them wanting more. Give your audience a good cliffhanger and maybe you’ll live to see another dawn – or 1001 more dawns.

This translates to – don’t give your reader a chance to put your book down for any reason!

Where does your chapter end? In the middle of action? Or in the middle of nowhere?

Television writers have mastered the art of leaving an audience hanging on the edge. Before each commercial break the tension ramps up, the music gets louder – fade to black. That’s the part where I start screaming, “I hate commercials!”

Novel writers don’t have the benefit of music and commercials to help us create the extra drama we need to make a reader turn the page; to keep them reading despite life’s distractions, but we can employ similar writing techniques. For instance, in Harlon Coben’s best selling novel, Tell No One (copywrite 2001 Dell) Coben ends chapter three with this:

“I’m sorry,” my dead wife mouthed.

And then she walked away.

Even without having read the previous chapters, you can see the power in this ending. Dr. Beck has just seen a video feed of his wife, who’s been dead for eight years, apparently alive.

Oh yeah, you bet you’re going to read on.

I’m positive, that if dawn had broken after hearing that, the King would have left Scheherazade’s head squarely on her shoulders, so he could hear what happened next.

Scheherazade was able to keep this going for 1001 nights, saving her life and finally winning the favor of the King. She reigned over his harem until her death, presumably at a ripe old age.

Your life might not depend on weather or not you can keep your reader awake at night, but your livelihood may. If you can keep a reader interested through 1001 chapters, you’ll have a long and happy career.


Originally published in Authorship the magazine of the National Writers Association 2005

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