4 Ideas for Ending Book Chapters So Readers Will Kill to Know What Happens Next

4 Ideas for Ending Book Chapters So Readers Will Kill to Know What Happens Next

Good book chapters are like bad treasure maps. They will lure you in. They will lead you through uncharted territory. Yet, at the end, they will not yield the treasure—they will just make you want to continue the search.

What Is the Structure of Book Chapters?

Ideally, each chapter will cover an event, a character, or a storyline with internal cohesion. Its first paragraphs often stake out the new territory. Its middle portions relate to or progress the overall story. The chapter should build on characters or events that lead toward the story resolution. The end of the chapter should hint at something to come without giving away when or where it will next be seen.

But how should a chapter end? Should it try to loop back to the beginning paragraphs and complete a story arc so the chapter is internally complete? Should it act like a cliffhanger á lá The Da Vinci Code, a sort of door-slams-shut-with-no-way-out nail bite? The answer, of course, depends.

Traditional Transition Points for Book Chapters

  • When the following chapter will change the scene or the setting.
  • When the following chapter will change the period in which the current phase of the story takes place.
  • When the following chapter changes the focus on the characters or conflict.
  • When the following chapter changes the story line.
  • When the following chapter changes the point of view.

Notice a common thread? The author knows what is coming, but the reader doesn’t. So, how should book chapters conclude to keep the reader engaged?

Consider this: the end of a chapter should not end much of anything. Instead, imagine writing the concluding sentences as hints of reminiscence for what led everyone up to that point, tinged with hope, anxiety, or fear for what lies ahead.

For example, dropping a kid off at the bus to summer camp is much more interesting when there is a hint of dread, the parents waving goodbye in smug comfort as their child’s head disappears among the other kids, the child (or the reader) knowing what the parents do not, that someone has dumped their anaconda into the camp lake.

4 Techniques for Ending Your Book Chapters So Readers Will Keep Racing Through the Pages

1. Taking Stock

This involves a bit of summing up. Study Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. After ten chapters of learning how clever is Elizabeth Bennett and how vain is Mr. Darcy, we are startled when Mr. Darcy appears in her private rooms and proposes marriage to her. He does so, he says, in spite of her inferiority, his family obstacles, her obligation to be flattered, and despite his having obstructed her sister’s chances with Bingley on the same grounds. She refuses. The chapter ends with her reflecting on how she had misread the situation, comparing in her mind the shock of his being in love with her with her objections to his pride and misconduct. She concludes by reaffirming her decision.

Mr. Darcy Proposes to Elizabeth Bennet Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

2. Shifting Storylines

In The Corrections, Jonathan Frantzen writes the story of each of the Lambert family in book sections that have the common thread–“Mom wants us all home for Christmas before Dad dies”–running through each of them. He ends chapters by writing a false resolution to the immediate sub-conflict, such as Gary and Caroline making up after fighting about Mom, then anticipating the disaster to follow. The phone rings, Gary and Caroline look up, Mom is calling, and Gary knew it was going to be expensive because Mom and Dad were on a ship at sea.

Ewan McGregor Maggie Gyllenhaal Jonathan Franzen The Corrections

3. Change Scene, Setting, or Point of View

In The Secret History, Donna Tartt writes a full chapter in which Richard has spoken with Charles, Camilla, and Henry about who was where after the killing, and has gone from dorm to forest to farmhouse. She ends the chapter with foreshadowing, the sound of a key turning in the door lock, and the comment, “That’ll be Francis.”

The Secret History Donna Tartt

4. Change the Time or Era

In Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of self-discovery, chapters end with a clue to a different period in time. For example, after Grandfather brushed his teeth and went to bed and the dog went to sleep, Alex lies awake listening to the sound of Grandfather’s breathing, knowing that both of them were awake and thinking of the same question: what Grandfather had done in the war.

Everything Is Illuminated Grandfather Alex

Each of these authors ends with a different technique, but each is aware of what comes next. In the chapters that follow, Miss Bennett reads Darcy’s letter explaining his objectionable conduct. Gary’s Mom and Dad make each other miserable on the cruise of the Grunnar Myrdal. Francis arrives and adds facts to the doubtful coincidences of Charles’s, Camilla’s, and Francis’s stories.  Alex and Grandfather step aside for the time being as the antecedent to their story goes back two hundred years in time.

In short, the succeeding chapters in our examples build on an unresolved question or begin a different storyline, whil, at the same time weaving in issues, characters, or events from this and earlier chapters.

Writing is an art, not a science. Even so, even a high-school chemistry textbook must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the middle of the treasure hunt, we are reminded that between the beach and the palm trees, there are twelve dead men on a dead man’s chest. Plant some clues, but don’t go straight for the treasure.

Tell me your opinion: What technique have you used to hook readers at the end of your most recent book chapters?

4 Ideas for Ending Book Chapters So Readers Will Kill to Know What Happens Next

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About Jack London

Jack London is the author of A Novel Approach (To Writing Your First Book) and the award-winning books French Letters: Virginia’s Wars and French Letters: Engaged in War. He has published some thirty literary articles and more than fifty book reviews. He has also studied creative writing at Oxford University and earned certificates at the Fiction Academy, St. Céré, France and Ecole Francaise, Trois Ponts, France. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife Alice and Junebug the writing cat.

Comments

  1. I think Harlan Coben is the master at ending books on a cliffhanger. I love this technique! The only problem, as a reader, is that you never want to put the book down! There is never a “good” stopping point.

    As a writer, I find this a little harder to recreate. I actually don’t write chapters as scenes with a beginning, middle, and end. I write the scene and if it is long enough, it becomes a chapter. If there is still room, I’ll write another scene. Sometimes I have certain scenes that encompass two chapters, because of their length. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, it just is the way I’ve always done it!

    • Two schools of thought here, Janelle.
      Number one — if it isn’t busted, don’t fix it.
      Number two – don’t let consistency become a hobgoblin.

      I suspect that mixing things up is worth a look. Some chapters / scenes are cliffhangers, some are ‘taking stock.’ Some are shifts to new pastures. At the expense of complaining about one of the most financially successful novels in recent memory, the never-ending cliffhangers at the end of every chapter of The Da Vinci Code wore me out, even when they changed points of view, scenes, characters, and time. It might have profited as a work of literature if the book also stopped and took stock now and then, and not as a device to serve as a check list of all the lame clues that had been planted up that point.
      jack

      • The really important thing in writing is to not worry too much about “how it should be” because you have no idea how many incredible writers I’ve seen become boring because they try to do “what they should”. Just tell your story and fix what doesn’t feel right to you later.

  2. I read this just yesterday about Game of Thrones: Martin told Time Magazine that writing for network TV (including Beauty and the Beast) taught him the importance of the “act break.” This means going to a commercial on a moment of “revelation, a twist, or a cliff-hanger.” He wanted the books to keep readers engaged, so he “tried to end every chapter with an act break.” This doesn’t mean he wanted to always end chapters with cliffhangers, though: “A cliff hanger is a good act break certainly, but it’s not the only kind of act break. It can just be a moment… a character moment, a moment of revelation, it has to end with something that makes you want to read more about this character.”

    • Well said, and good advice. I leaven it with the salt that not every book is or should be written with the view that there should be act breaks, but could not agree more that chapters ought to end with something that makes one want to read more about something, be it ‘this character,’ or a back story, a disaster in the front story, or some element of the story that made the reader stay with it past page 20. Sometimes it is nothing more than the writing itself. We can but hope, no?
      -Jack

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Jack!

  4. Thanks for the suggestions/tips!

  5. A good subject for writers wanting to keep their readers interested!
    I am writing a historical novel, trying to tell two stories taking place 220 years apart.

    The earlier story answers what the treasure of the Raven king is, the later one recounts how the hero tracked it down.

    Since each shifts geographical settings frequently, what is the best way to alternate between the two time periods?

    Thank you,

  6. Great hints as always. Thanks.
    But I have a question: in a novel where you change POV on a chapter break (because of your multiple MCs) how long should it be before you return to the (first) MC and cary on their story arc? I guess there isn’t a minimum, but is there a maximum of intermittent chapters before a reader may lose the thread or their interest? This is something I am struggling with in my outlining process….
    TIA

    • My multiple MCs? I think you are writing in code, but then what do I know?

      Every story is different and I believe most readers come to a story in their unique ways, so I doubt there is an index of when it is that a reader loses the thread or interest.

      Having said that, most of us are trained to respond in threes: beginning, middle, end, triage, triangle, primacy, recency, and that other thing. So, I suggest that keeping story lines grouped in threes (three chapters of one, segue to another, three character developments, segue to another,) makes a clue, thread, or foreshadowing seem familiar to a reader when you plant someone / something and three chapters later come back to it; readers hopefully will consider it a return to the familiar and pride themselves on recalling it.
      Having said that, the more unfamiliar a character, place, or story line, the more difficulty a reader may have in picking it back up. I am currently reading a novel by one of my favorite authors set in a place I admittedly know little about (Hong Kong, Cantonese) and find myself digging back thirty or forty pages to see if I missed a name or place that had popped up and disappeared earlier. Trust your readers, but feed them.

  7. This is a great discussion board.
    Wayne, start with ‘what are all the ways to alternate between two time periods?’ before figuring out which is the best way. One might alternate chapters. One might alternate within a chapter where a common thread to both time periods crops up; for example, if the geography setting is on the James River, someone in 2014 who is wandering through colonial Williamsburg might imagine a scene in original Williamsburg on the same street, in the same building, or underneath the hideous theme park, and then segue into the original event itself.
    I think the time-honored way is to write in alternating book sections, with several chapters devoted to one time period, another section with several chapters focused on the other time period, and common threads of problems, conflicts, or the like emerging within them to lead toward the other time/ story. I emphasize ‘time-honored,’ since merely doing it because its been done before doesn’t mean it necessarily has been done well. Once you try composing in each of the possible methods, and I’m confident there are more options, you’ll find the one that works for your writing style and your story. -Jack

  8. Katherine says:

    As a novice, I found this very helpful. Thank you.

  9. As always this is very useful advice and has got me thinking about my last work. Before the climax I hope that the reader asks if the protagonist is ever going to do anything about the bullying. There is one chapter that goes against the grain in the sense that everything goes right for the protagonist but when the chapter ends, you know that things will go wrong for him once again. I think where I get it right is after the main climax where the protagonist shoots up the school but there’s still 100 pages left to read. I think the remaining chapters do a good job of filling that void.

    • Great. You didn’t give me enough to write a book review, so all I can say is ‘I hope so too.’

      The conventions of creative writing are largely conventions of ideas, not of rules. The more rigidly you apply them the less likely they are to seem creative. Good luck on your work, and I suspect that the bullying does end.

  10. Claire Elizabeth says:

    Sometimes I feel like these blog topics pop up exactly when I need them. I am struggling with chapter breaks in a novel written from two POVs that alternate every other chapter. Many (but not all) of my chapters are cliffhangers and I am worried this will be difficult for readers since the resolution of the cliffhanger won’t come for two more chapters. Maybe this is fine and will keep them going but I worry that it will just be frustrating. Thoughts?

  11. Hi, Claire. It’s nice to hear from you. I don’t know your book, of course, but as a genre I fear that the cliffhanger group tend more toward the cliffhangers being the story rather than the story being the story. I’m a bit self-conscious about promoting myself but in my book (A Novel Approach) and in my classes I urge above all to stick with the story. Lots of chapters in Lord of the Rings ended as cliffhangers, but even though readers get wrapped up in the comings and goings of all the dwarves and elves and hobbits, sight is not lost of Frodo’s quest to find the fire and dump the ring and save all man/hobbitkind. By contrast, no matter how hard I tried, I never knew what the story was in The DaVinci Code because every chapter ended with a cliffhanger and most follow-on chapters began with ‘and then…’ I thought for a while the story was to figure out who murdered the guy in the Louvre, then to figure out where the chalice was, then to figure out who the secret society was, ad carborundum (grinding away). In the end, I concluded that the story was only what those idiots had to do to stop running around looking for cliffhangers so the book would end. All appetizer, no entree.

    My favorite teaching example probably is Pride and Prejudice; about every three chapters Elizabeth takes stock. She sits down alone and recounts in her clever head the things that have happened and why they are a problem. That in turn nudges us into keeping in mind what the conflict is — that someone’s stupid pride and class prejudice are getting in the way of meaningful relationships.
    So, consider every few chapters having your characters pause and think back over what has got them there or what has got the other POV there. That is a great place to foreshadow a forthcoming conflict that must be resolved for the reader to keep on track to tossing the ring into the fire or onto the third finger, left hand.
    Best wishes,
    jack

  12. I try to think of sub-themes that build up to the larger theme: episodes of various version of something that foreshadow something bigger.

    One of the reason I had a hard time with books at first, is I was trying to make a single theme last about 12,000 words.

    • Thanks for sharing, Sarah. One of the things I try to suggest in my classes and in A Novel Approach is that while we must understand and use the conventions of writing, the best approach is to have ideas. You may count yourself fortunate that you flogged themes for only 12,000 words before you fell out of love with what you were typing and resumed your love affair with telling your story.

      all the best
      jack

  13. ‘Since each shifts geographical settings frequently, what is the best way to alternate between the two time periods? ‘

    Keep it simple, separate by chapters, add in a few transition so they know of the change and tell both stories. Personal preference, please do at least three chapters before making the switch between times and people. It’s very frustrating as a reader to be taken away from your favorite character and trust onto noter too soon.

  14. Tony

    “but is there a maximum of intermittent chapters before a reader may lose the thread or their interest? This is something I am struggling with in my outlining process…”

    Ok intermittent hum interrupted, sporadic – Just make them all as interesting and with as much pop as you can, so that readers want to read both. If there’s any way to foreshadow then try that. 🙂 Even just objects of 220 that can be found ‘today’ might work.

    If a chapter goes on and on about something to much then it becomes boring. If a chapter continues to tease us with something 4-5 chapters later it becomes exasperating. IMOP limit those to two-3 chapters. Any less then that and it’s frustrating as a reader can’t get into the new scene/characters enough.

    To many chapters and they might screaming inside for it to end already. Just sharing my personal experience with some books. Readers can tell when filler is added, to boost up word count so don’t. Hum.. loosing interest, adding in to many new charters in a short time frame. Nix!

    Oh and if you are struggling then consider that what your trying to write might not be how the story wants to go. It’s silly but ask your charters what they want to do next, in their voice. The struggle might just disappear. Oh and for the middle, make it even more exciting then the beginning, I say raise the bar higher.

    Hope this was of some help.

  15. Are seen hangers posible at the end of each page to ensure that the reader does not loose interest, also adding lots of action to every page to keep them turning the page. Nicolas.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although you want something fresh and interesting to be *happening* on each page and moving the plot, that doesn’t mean every *page* needs a cliffhanger.

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