Feb 23 2011

Chapter endings

Someone who read and critiqued my manuscript recently commented that several of the chapter endings were ‘flat.’ What does the term ‘flat chapter ending’ mean, and how do I fix it?Lorraine, NSW, Australia 

Chapters (and scenes within chapters) should end on a note that makes the reader want to turn the page to find out what happens next. Often called a ‘thrust,’ it’s something that pushes the reader into the next chapter to find out what happens next, unable to put the book down.

If a chapter ends on a flat note, it’s a good place to put the book down, turn off the light, and go to sleep. And maybe not pick it up again if there wasn’t anything to drive the reader forward.

A flat chapter ending can be a scene that fizzles out. Maybe it’s a scene that never is fully resolved, doesn’t drive the story forward, or doesn’t seem to have a point. Every scene must have a purpose, and that purpose is to push the story forward and raise the interest in some way.

One common situation that causes flat chapter endings is a story that is a collection of scenes from the character’s life, but without a driving, common thread, a story, a plot. Think of reading a journal where the writer details each day as it happens, but there’s no overarching theme or plot – just ‘here’s what happened today.’ Even if each individual journal entry might be well written or interesting on its own, they don’t make for a story that engages the reader.

Here are a few ways to end a chapter on a thrust.

– A cliffhanger: a tense, suspenseful moment that leaves the reader hanging. This doesn’t have to mean an action/thriller/mystery story. An emotional story, a romance, a coming-of-age story – all can end a chapter on a suspenseful moment.

– A revelation/surprise: something unexpected happens right at the end of the chapter. This can even be an internal realization by the character of something surprising. The tension or thrust is created by the unexpectedness of the new information, and the reader is left wondering how the character will deal with this new situation.

– A new obstacle, challenge, or raising of the stakes: just when things were looking up, or looking bad enough, a new development increases the conflict and makes it more difficult for the main character to achieve her goals.

– A new and interesting character appears on stage, one whom the readers know will create new tension (love interest, antagonist, or whatever the case might be) even if no actual tension is explicitly raised.

– An emotional high (whether for the character, the reader, or both).

– An emotional low.

Having a strong thrust at the end of a chapter can be especially important if it’s one of low tension such as back story or a calm moment in an otherwise tense story. But if this low tension chapter ends low, it deflates the tension of the overall story to that point. A low tension chapter is a good scene to intersperse throughout higher tension scenes to give the reader a breather and to provide flow and pace to the story. If this low-tension chapter ends with something unexpected, it helps drive readers into the next chapter (where ideally the tension and stakes are raised yet again).

There’s also the chapter ending that does double duty. It may seem on the surface like a low, quiet ending, but if the reader knows there’s something ominous looming on the horizon that perhaps the character isn’t even aware of, it still creates that compelling forward motion in the story (and the page-turning).

Your first readers – agents and publishing company editors – are looking for a book they can’t put down. If they find a chapter that doesn’t raise the stakes, increase the tension, or pique their curiosity to keep turning the page, that dull, flat chapter ending makes for the perfect spot to stop reading and send a form rejection letter. That’s because many readers will also be putting the book aside at that point.

And that’s not something a writer wants.

For some specific examples of thrilling chapter endings any writer can adapt and use in his or her own work, I refer you to the literary geniuses at McSweeney’s.

11 Responses to “Chapter endings”

  • Pete Says:

    My favorite piece of advice came from Dennis Lehane, who said “I try to enter a chapter late and leave early.”

    Then he pointed out Lee Child, who ends a chapter in the middle of a scene and resumes the action with the opening of the next chapter. I’ve been studying that in his books, and it is remarkably effective at depriving me of sleep.

  • R. K. Alan Says:

    As a bit of an old timer, I grew up when the movie theaters showed 15 to 20 minute serials such as Flash Gorden and Tarzan. They always ended with a cliffhanger. I like to leave my reader suspended on a rope at the end of each chapter so he can’t put the book down and “needs” to turn the page. Ray

    http://NewBookJournal.com posts author press releases and announcements for free.

  • Tim Pond Says:

    Yes, it’s generally a good idea to create at least a minor cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, making the reader to wanna read more immediately. Even if it’s too late at night already.

  • Samantha Bond Says:

    Robb, no fair posting that McSweeney’s link when I’m at work. Almost pissed myself laughing in my little cubicle, and am now incurring strange looks from my colleagues. The pick-up lines post is even better than the chapter endings. Thanks!

  • Amethyst Says:

    I think you should count your chapter, divide by the number of possible endings, write that number per chapter ending on slips of paper, find a top hat, and just pluck your method as you go along.


  • Phillipa Says:

    Mmm…guilty of inserting a chapter break when my characters go to sleep. A bad habit of mine that I battle with all the time. I’m at the stage now where I give the reader a little push. One day I’ll work up to an almighty ‘thrust’.

  • Lynn Rush Says:

    Great advice. Gena Showalter, Kresley Cole, Rebecca Zanetti, etc have all kept me up past my bedtime with their awesome chapter endings. I just had to read one more page. That turned into another chapter….next thing I knew, it was two in the morning.

    I love it when books do that. 🙂 Thanks for this post.

  • sherry Says:

    Wonderful post! And great advise. Thanks for sharing.