Thriller giant James Patterson declares “at the end, something has to propel you into the next chapter.”
Each chapter ending needs to pull the reader deeper into the story. If a chapter ends on a flat, boring note, the reader is more likely to put the book down.
There are two reliable ways to end a chapter:
- End early. Like a good dinner guest, a good chapter knows when to leave before the party gets boring.
- End on a beginning, with a lead-in to the next. This demands an appreciation of drama and structure.
Natural chapter breaks arise from several circumstances:
- Change of location
- Change of time
- Change of event
- Break at the end of dialogue, description or reflection.
You can spot something wrapping up and take the opportunity to halt a chapter, beginning the next with something new.
An immediate break might be the end of a conversation, the end of a car journey, a kid’s bedtime, or ringing of the school bell. Over a longer time frame, it might be a changing or the seasons, an anniversary, or a new school terms.
How to end
To wrap or not to wrap? Spotting the end of a scene, dialogue, plot point or event, you have to decide how formally to wrap things up before moving on to the next chapter. Early novels tended to lay everything out for the reader and tie things up with a bow on top. After key events and plot points, you got a re-cap or summary pointing out the significance of what just happened, along with a moral message or heavy hint.
Those drilled in presentation skills may be tempted toward the ‘in conclusion’ summary slide, telling the reader what just happened in case they missed it. This is patronising and not flattering to the reader.
The other extreme is the ‘jump cut’ from one chapter to the next. Increasingly prevalent in film and TV editing, the leap from one thing to the next keeps up the pace. More applicable to certain genres and stories than others, action, thriller and rom-com lean into this hard. On the downside it can be jarring and disorienting to keep jumping from one thing to the next.
Anyone with a sense of drama will opt for the cliff hanger beloved of serial drama. It’s a cheap and effective way to encourage the reader to turn the page; throw in a dramatic event, surprise, revelation or perilous set-up.
Cliff hangers come in two shapes: the sharp or hard cliff hanger, or the gentle cliff hanger.
The sharp ending is literally Richard Hannay hanging off a cliff or the side of a train. It is Jack Reacher in hand cuffs or Scarpetta discovering a body. The crime writers’ standby is have someone enter the room with a gun.
Not everything has to be deadly peril. Perhaps Bridget Jone’s boss barks that she’s fired. Or a letter arrives at Longbourn reporting Lydia’s Bennett’s elopement with Wickham (yes, collect a sticker). Both are dramatic in context.
Cliff hangers are not mandatory. They have to be earned, not just thrown in. Avoid melodrama. If you can imagine underscoring a cliff hanger with a loud orchestra hit, you’re writing it wrong. According to John Fox, don’t make the reader feel ‘cliffhung.’
Bad cliff hangers can be manipulative or artificial. Moreover cliffhangers have to be genre-appropriate. A plane crash onto the Ladies Sewing Circle or a Comanche attack in the middle of Little Women will be seen for what they are. Anne Elliot doesn’t just throw the tables over in a fit of temper, smashing the best china in the genteel tea rooms of Bath, swearing vengeance on the world.
A faithful standby is the interruption breaking the action.
- the end of the office party, two characters are about to kiss when the boss turns up.
- the crucial confession in a domestic drama is cut short when the invalid grandma upstairs thumps on the ceiling for attention; the mailman rings the doorbell; Great Aunt Agatha arrives on the doorstep with a suitcase…
…and the moment passes.
Interruptions leave the business of the chapter unfinished, delaying the resolution for another chapter or three. It’s a form of delayed gratification.
Musing and reflecting
Not everything has to be be drama, cliff hangers or interruptions, though. There’s room for musing and reflection.
Character-based chapter endings allow for reflections, decisions, change and growth. There’s the ‘look back, look forward’ chapter break where a character looks back on events, actions and mistakes. Moments of realisation, decision and planning make for good chapter endings, setting up the next movement. A moment of reflection is only as useful as the conclusion, change or plan that comes from it.
A variation on surprise or revelation is to end by foreshadowing, establishing links and connections, dropping hints to future developments. The leaves start falling in autumn, storm clouds gather on the horizon; these are familiar indirect foreshadowings of death or change. More direct foreshadowing includes Grandma developing a pesky, persistent cough. Perhaps the car takes six attempts to start one ordinary morning. When will it fail completely? When the older brother resentfully declares “one of these days I’m going to…” we suspect that day is coming… soon. Each sets up an event in future chapters.
End it where it needs to end.
Lastly, chapters shouldn’t outstay their welcome. If you have momentum in the middle, building to a satisfactory break point, the ending itself doesn’t have to be hard or dramatic. Maybe end it early…
Each chapter is its own story
Recurring advice is to always think of chapters as self-contained stories. Each chapter needs its own dramatic arc, ideally with a beginning, middle and end, including an opening hook, central question or problem, and a resolution.Can you give your chapter a satisfying short-story arc? If you can define your short-story end point, then you know when to end your chapter.
Yes, we could have opened with this but for one issue: the deferred or delayed resolution.
Depending on your chosen story structure, you may have a series of strategically place mini-resolutions, plot points and turning points along the way. The ending of certain chapters will coincide with these. The rest of the chapters are about avoiding or delaying resolution, to get the reader to keep turning pages. This is where deferred resolution takes priority over the ‘short-story chapter’ arc. Keep the reader hooked with a cliff hanger, interruption or realisation.
What do I have in Book One of my series? In many way, cliff hangers are easy. Looking at some of my chapters under their working titles:
- Sanctuary: with the discovery of the dead Walkers, there’s another hunter in the Outlands, foreshadowing the antagonist.
- Wolves: the hunter took out the wolf pack single-handed, raising the stakes for Act Two.
- Infiltration: the antagonists team up; Jovanka’s plan is toast. This raise the stakes for Act Three
- Berries: finishes on a set-piece conversation, contrasting the protagonists’ different approaches to life. Varla doesn’t know how to live, he’s not fighting for a purpose any more. It’s an affirmation for Jo and realisation for Varla. This is musing, reflection and character insight.