Chapter Endings

After my local SCBWI crit group meeting this past weekend, I found myself thinking about endings. Chapter endings, that is.

Many chapters cease and desist at the natural ending of a scene, but more often than not, a chapter can end right in the middle of the action—or even in the middle of a conversation.  Just like there's no rule for chapter length, there's not a rule for where to end one.

So what do you do?

Here's my take. End on strong note that you’ve been building up to for the whole chapter.  That note could be a realization or revelation. It could be ending one plot point and signaling another.  It could be a cliffhanger. It could be a quiet moment or a call to action. 

And that note has to propel the reader into the next chapter. 

For instance, here’s a chapter ending from Scott Westerfeld’s Behemoth:

“Look smart, gentleman,” Dr. Barlow said. “We have an elephant to catch.” (102)

This one just sounds great—and you’re looking forward to what happens next. Here’s another:

Alek looked up and saw it…

A gyrothopter hovering directly overhead. (348)

Both chapters break in the middle of the action, but the end signals a change in direction. For instance, in the last example, Alek and the others have been trying to sneak around Istanbul, but now they’ve been discovered.  Then next chapter will be about engaging the enemy instead escaping.

In Levianthan and Behemoth, Westerfeld keeps the story going at a very brisk pace, but chapter endings don't need to be so  plot-oriented. The end note of a chapter can be thought-provoking and quiet, or whatever you need it to be. It just has to keep the overall tension of the story moving forward.  The reader must want to turn the page to find out what happens next.

My last bit of advice. Don't bury your end note with a lot of stage direction. You can save the "and then they caught the train to Barcelona" stuff for the beginning of the next chapter--or let it fall between the chapter cracks. End on a strong note and get the hell out.

What makes a chapter satisfying for you?

20 comments:

Alex said...

I like chapters with my favourite character in or were tension is very well manage: Action Vs Jokes.

I've found that novels that end the chapter in the middle of the action (just before something drastic is going to happen, or just before the story moves onto its next stage) keep me reading further. Often, I have to stop reading in the middle of the chapter because I can't make myself stop at the end!

Elaine AM Smith said...

A great post!
There is so much that doesn't need to be said: just opening the next chapter in Barcelona is enough - I'd kind of guess they travelled there :D

AliceReed said...

Great advice, specially for new/young writers like me! Thank you very much for sharing!

LM Preston said...

I love chapters that hook me and make me want to read the next page so that I never put the book down.

Susanne Winnacker said...

I always have to keep reading if a chapter ends with a cliffhanger. That has led to lots of sleep deprivation in the past.

kellyhashway said...

I love cliffhangers. If I'm reading a book and a chapter ends by wrapping up a scene nicely, then it gives me a reason to put the book down. I don't want that to happen with my own books, so I make sure to end on a cliffhanger or even a place of great tension so that the anticipation of what's going to happen next makes the reader turn the page.

Andrea Mack said...

I love it when chapter endings leave me with a question in my mind, or wanting to read further. I do think it can be a bit formulaic to always end with a cliffhanger though, and I like the idea of using a few different compelling strategies for chapter endings.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

When I was analyzing Hunger Games, famous for compelling chapter endings, I found they weren't all cliff hangers (although many were), but they almost all ended on some kind of "gap" - a revelation or gap between expectation and reality that left the reader thinking "Well, NOW WHAT??"

Great post!

lotusgirl said...

What great advice and examples. I like Susan Kaye Quinn's example of Hunger Games, too. That's is exactly. I'm still trying to accomplish that in my own writing. The first step is recognizing, right?

C. Michael Fontes said...

Luckily, this is how I naturally write. Meaning, before I starting learning to actually write, this is what I tended to do. Must have picked it up from reading great books :)

I do things like:

"The door knob clicked and banged, and as the thumping became louder and louder, it was clear that someone outside wanted in.

They were going to get what they wanted."

:) Yay cliffhangers!

Tere Kirkland said...

Yes, Westerfeld is awesome at this, but Dashner is even worse, er, better!

I read the Scorch Trials in a few hours since there was no good stopping place at the end of any chapter! That magnificent b@stard!

Eric W. Trant said...

Well put. You are right about the right way.

I've seen authors cut the action too soon, or leave what I considered "irritating" cliffhangers. You want to leave them both satisfied and unsatisfied. They want to stop, and they could stop, but one more chapter, just one more chapter.

- Eric

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post! I love the Westerfield examples. :-)

nutschell said...

Endings are a bit tricky, I find. Cliffhangers are good sometimes, but not all the time. This is great advice you gave us "End on a strong note and get the hell out."

Lisa Gail Green said...

Great way to boil it down! Yep, leave 'em wanting to turn the page.

Julie Musil said...

Great advice! I sometimes struggle with chapter lengths and ends, so I really appreciate this.

Becky Mushko said...

Good post! This is why you're so valuable to our crit group!

Angie Smibert said...

Thanks for coming by everyone.

SKQ: A gap! That's a great way to put it! And I almost used chapter endings from Mockingjay

And I agree that not all chapters should be cliffhangars. That can get a little tedious if not handled well.

Faith Pray said...

Good stuff. My favorite part: "end on a strong note and get the hell out." The tension thing is definitely something I want to figure out.

My Year Without said...

Satisfying chapter? Revelations in the form of teasing. I love not getting exactly what I want. It's the one thing that keeps me glued to the pages. But there must be hints and some minor giveaways throughout.

Great examples.