Chapters, and How to End Them
The ending of a chapter should always, always, give the reader a reason to look up, check the clock, and mutter, “Three hours’ sleep is enough, just this once,” and turn the page to keep reading. It should take discipline for a reader to put down your book. Willpower. Determination. The end of a chapter is an important moment, one that should not be squandered.
The great thing about chapters is that there is absolutely no rule about how long they must be. You could have one word, or ten thousand. This means that you can end a chapter virtually anywhere. Well, okay, ending a chapter mid-sentence is kind of weird, but you can probably think of situations where even that would be the right thing to do.
Chapters should always end with a moment of tension. The cliffhanger is an old standby, and in some stories it’s almost a requirement to end most chapters with the protagonist in sudden mortal peril. That’s not the only note to end a chapter on, however.
A cliffhanger promises a thrilling escape, but there are other promises you can make. You can start a fight scene, or a sex scene, or a chase scene at the end of the chapter. You can reveal a clue to a mystery, an important secret, or new character.
For example, here’s an excerpt from “Monster Whisperer,” a story I’m releasing in my podcast and on scribl.com, chapter by chapter. These are the last three paragraphs of chapter 6. For context, a Chocondris is a plantlike, woody tentacle monster, which is owned by Dale Clearwater, the eponymous Monster Whisperer.
Then the shuttle settled into the water, and the forward hatch hinged downward, revealing a ladder on its inner surface. A tall, dark-skinned man with short black hair wearing a bright green outfit emerged and leapt into the water. He raced up onto the beach and caught up with the Chocondris in mere seconds. He jabbed sensitive flower buds, and the Chocondris flinched and twitched. It spit spores at him, but he ducked under every little cloud without even a speck touching his skin. It tried to grab his arms and legs, but he slipped out of its coils with dizzying alacrity. On the rare occasions it could get a tentacle around one of his limbs, he twisted away, undoing its coil before it could solidify its hold. The Chocondris quivered with rage. It dropped Dale and Christine to bring more of its limbs to bear. The man retreated a few steps, then leapt back under a concentrated assault. He seemed to know exactly how far away to leap to stay out of its clutches as he retreated back toward the beach.
As soon as the Chocondris broke out of the cover of the trees, the shuttle’s capture beam caught it, plucking it like a weed. Like the others, it quickly disappeared inside the shuttle.
“Connie!” Christine shouted, stumbling forward to wrap her arms around the man. “You found us! I knew you’d find us.” She squeezed him hard then stepped away to point, beaming at Dale with her perfectly bright smile. “I told you my brother would find us!”
I went back and forth on whether to include that last paragraph in the chapter. Wouldn’t it be better to end the chapter on the hopelessness of the Chocondris being stolen by the mysterious monster hunter? After consulting with my beta readers, it became clear that no, that was definitely not the right course of action. It’s fine to end on a threat, with some monster appearing and threatening the protagonist with some dire fate, but if the threat evaporates as soon as they move on to the next chapter, the reader will feel tricked and cheated. The end of a chapter should make promises that the next chapter fulfills.
That’s why keeping that paragraph at the end of the chapter is the right thing to do. Instead of promising some kind of conflict with a mysterious monster-hunter, we’re promised an introduction to a new character. The next chapter fulfills that promise.
Generally speaking, that’s the best place to end a chapter if you want to keep your readers engaged with the story.
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