Chapter breaks are do-or-die territory for novelists. You may be spinning a grand ol’ tale, full of fascinating characters, but if your chapter endings leave readers no reason to turn the page to find out what happens next, all your hard work on the other aspects of your story will be wasted. Not every chapter needs to end with a cliffhanger, but they do need to encompass a question powerful enough to make the reader crazy to know the answer.
This is no easy task, in large part because not every chapter is going to feature huge revelations and startling questions. So how do you mine your story for the tension and conflict that will translate into the most powerful question a reader can ask: What’s gonna happen next? Following are ten suggestions for turning your blasé endings into killer chapter breaks.
1. Promise of conflict to come.
Example: The hero has just been challenged to a duel.2. A secret kept.
Inherent Question: Will he survive?
Example: The hero’s partner hides a letter.3. A major decision or vow.
Inherent Question: What’s in the confounded letter?
Example: The hero swears to avenge his wife’s murder.4. An announcement of a shocking event.
Inherent Question: How will he go about it? Will he succeed?
Example: The hero’s father dies.5. A moment of high emotion.
Inherent Question: How did he die? How is the hero going to react?
Example: The hero is enraged by the promotion of an incompetent coworker.6. A reversal or surprise that turns the story upside down.
Inherent Question: How will the hero express his anger? Will he experience repercussions?
Example: The heroine discovers her long-dead mother isn’t dead at all.7. A new idea.
Inherent Question: Where has the mother been all this time? How is the heroine going to adjust to this new paradigm?
Example: The hero comes up with a new scheme for defeating the bad guy.8. An unanswered question.
Inherent Question: Will it work?
Example: “You’re not who you said you were, are you?”9. A portentous metaphor.
Inherent Question: Is he who he said he was?
Example: A solar eclipse over a battlefield.10. A turning point.
Inherent Question: Is this an indication of tragedy to come?
Example: The heroine is shipped off to an orphanage.It’s possible—and even preferable—to use all of these examples in one story. Use a wide variety of chapter breaks to keep your readers guessing. Ending every chapter with a cliffhanger can become monotonous, so don’t feel as if the tension has to be ratcheted to breaking point at the end of every scene. Make sure your readers are left with a question—a reason to know more—and, before they know it, they’ll have read your entire book in one sitting.
Inherent Question: What will happen in her new life? How will she adapt?
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Story by K.M. Weiland