How should I end a chapter?
The very question is an answer to that—because you’re going to keep reading to find out, right?
And that is the exact point of a chapter’s end: to get you to be unable to resist turning the page to start the next chapter.
We’ve talked about chapter length here on Career Authors, and I insist that any careful reader—like you all are—has an instinct about that. You know each chapter must be either a separate scene, or maybe two shorter scenes.
Each scene has a beginning-middle-end, and a focused purpose. A purpose that you as the author should be able to state clearly.
There’s also a flow of a chapter, and again, you know this instinctively. As you read, can’t you feel when the chapter is about to be over? The chapter begins with an action, or forward motion of some kind. Then the action or tension increases, then something is accomplished or resolved—and then something new begins.
You’ve had the experience haven’t you, of saying to yourself as you’re reading: this chapter is almost over? So, you know it, right?
Ten pages is about the max. Three pages the shortest—unless you are doing a particular style, then, hey, fine. Anything can work.
(If you have a chapter that’s too long, see if it’s really two chapters! Where could you cut it in half—will that still work?)
But once you start a new chapter, how do you end it in a way that’s compelling and irresistible?
Try these 17 tips
1. Ask a question
You wouldn’t write it so obviously, but: Where have I seen that guy before? Who’s at the door? Why is the phone ringing? Is Sally is the murderer? And of course, you’re not going to begin to answer that until the next chapter.
2. Present a door
Not necessarily a real door–although that would work—will they walk through? But also a metaphorical door: a possibility, or idea, a change or an opportunity.
3. Present an obstacle
Uh-oh. The “door” is locked. There’s a blackout. There’s a flat tire. There’s a shadow of a scary person. You’re fired, or hurt or turned away.
4. A decision must be made—huge or tiny
When your character has to make a decision, they have to DO something, right? And whatever that is won’t happen until the next chapter.
5. A terrible choice
Whatever they decide will be awful—oh no! What will they do? The Lady or The Tiger? (But you have to tell in the next chapter. Or eventually, at least.)
6. The realization of a mistake
The light dawns. Oh no. I was wrong. Now what? Turn the page.
And to add to the dramatic irony: It can be a mistake the reader already knew or feared.
7. A disappointment
What your character thought would happen, or hoped would happen, didn’t happen. How will they handle that? Now what?
8. A “good plan” is formed
And what happens to good plans? They go awry.
9. They get a visitor or a message – who or what will it be?
A guy with a gun? The Nobel Prize? A ring? A secret message?
10. They learn something new
Oh! I didn’t realize until right now that… turn the page.
11. An arrival or an entrance
Depending on POV, your character enters a new place. Or, someone else enters their sphere.
12. A departure or an exit
Or—they leave. Why?
13. A rejection
Someone says: No. Goodbye. You’re fired. It’s not me. You’re guilty. You have to leave. I hate you.
14. Big action
An ending to one part of the book and AND a beginning to the next. Big suspense or conflict. Something blows up. Someone gets hurt/killed/shot/kidnapped/tied up/ransomed/not ransomed/elected. Someone wins, fails, loses, disappears. A fight begins. A crash is threatened. A ticking clock.
Do not make every chapter ending a cliffhanger! That’s annoying and amateurish.
15. A touching or pivotal confession
Create a bonding moment: I’ve never told anyone this, but… Or: I’ve never admitted this to myself but…
16. A touching or pivotal reflection
Create a quiet moment: Now that I think about it again, maybe that’s not what he/she/they/the code/the message/the assignment meant.
17. A touching or pivotal understanding
Maybe my mother/boss/spouse/lover/friend/ didn’t understand how she was upsetting me.
Check your manuscript like this
Pretend you didn’t write it. Now, flip to the end of any chapter, any one in the book. Read the last line. Even totally out of context, would you turn the page? If not, try a tweak or two.
What ideas do you have to end a chapter? Let’s talk on our Facebook page. Now, get writing.
And PS. You’ve given me an idea. Coming soon: chapter endings of novels you know. What will you think when you read them out of context? Do they work? We’ll see if we can tell.