10 Killer Chapter Breaks

10 Killer Chapter Breaks

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.

Inherent Question: Will he survive?

2. A secret kept.

Example: The hero’s partner hides a letter.

Inherent Question: What’s in the confounded letter?

3. A major decision or vow.

Example: The hero swears to avenge his wife’s murder.

Inherent Question: How will he go about it? Will he succeed?

4. An announcement of a shocking event.

Example: The hero’s father dies.

Inherent Question: How did he die? How is the hero going to react?

5. A moment of high emotion.

Example: The hero is enraged by the promotion of an incompetent coworker.

Inherent Question: How will the hero express his anger? Will he experience repercussions?

6. A reversal or surprise that turns the story upside down.

Example: The heroine discovers her long-dead mother isn’t dead at all.

Inherent Question: Where has the mother been all this time? How is the heroine going to adjust to this new paradigm?

7. A new idea.

Example: The hero comes up with a new scheme for defeating the bad guy.

Inherent Question: Will it work?

8. An unanswered question.

Example: “You’re not who you said you were, are you?”

Inherent Question: Is he who he said he was?

9. A portentous metaphor.

Example: A solar eclipse over a battlefield.

Inherent Question: Is this an indication of tragedy to come?

10. A turning point.

Example: The heroine is shipped off to an orphanage.

Inherent Question: What will happen in her new life? How will she adapt?

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.

10 Killer Chapter Breaks

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. A great list of ways to build tension and keep readers turning the page, but I agree that if every chapter ends with a cliff hanger things are going to either get monotonous or the reader is just going to get sick of plot devices holding the story up.
    As a reader, I quite enjoy most of these chapter endings as they do help propel you forward in the story and keep you reading but I hate it when you have an unanswered question or you are in the middle of a life or death situation, you turn the page for the next chapter and you find yourself in a completely unrelated scene and it is going to be another chapter before you get any kind of resolution.
    Thanks for sharing this post.

    • Thank you K.M. Weiland, I like your newsletter. I’m going to follow your advices to write very well. I have all my novels in French but with your newsletter, I’ll try to write an English novel. I’ m an English teacher. So I write my novel in French because the readers in my country speak French. Writing in English interest me very well because I want to have a great audience in Africa.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        You go! I’m in the process of learning French myself right now, but I’m a long way away from being able to write a novel in it!

  2. I agree. Even in movies, I’m not fond of scenes that cut back and forth during tense moments, in a deliberate attempt to force me into a state of tension.

  3. Another awesome post, KM. I love how you target these areas, breaking up writing into single topics.

    Before I ever sat down to try and write a novel, I didn’t understand how authors figured out where to end chapters. Once I got going, though, it began to fall into place. There seemed to be a natural place to end each scene, where I felt the tension tighten. At the same time, the scene has to feel complete. I think you hit the nail on the head with your analysis here!

  4. what a great post! this is such a good list.

    btw – my mom was THRILLED to get A Man Called Outlaw for Christmas! soon as she realized it was YOU…she was ready to dig in. 🙂

    blessings!

  5. The breaking point for scenes has always come very naturally for me. I always have sense of where the story wants to break. But finding the right words to hit the nail on the head and keep the reader turning pages, *that* is tricky. I refer to this list on a frequent basis myself!

  6. @Jeannie: I’m so pleased! I hope she enjoys it.

  7. This is wonderful stuff, K.M. I love how you provide such valuable info and examples in every post – you rock! 🙂

  8. I’m pleased you’re finding the blog useful! Hearing that always makes my day.

  9. Helpful post!

    I always try to be aware of the chapter breaks. I believe they are very important too!

    Great examples :o)

  10. Thanks! I’ve just started analyzing someone else’s book to get some ideas. But this list is better! I have a pretty natural feel of where to end, but that last paragraph/sentence has stumped me on a few of my last chapters in my WIP. How to word it at the very end so as not to deaden the tension I’m ending on has been tricky.

  11. @Erica: The nuance of chapter breaks is something I always have to concentrate on. It’s an effort, to be sure.

    @MJ: Studying other people’s successful chapter transitions is excellent. What works for others can work for us too!

  12. I think this is a great list and very helpful. I know it’s been posted that chapter breaks tend to come more naturally with time and experience but how would you advise a new author ~ short or longer chapters?

    I haven’t had any complaints from the editor or my critique partner working with me, but I have noticed that some of the books I’ve been reading have very short chapters (just a page or two) which seems more like scene breaks to me. Others are more in the medium range… mine are kind of long.

    I based my chapters on covering one idea or event in the story. Then I moved on to the next. Though I haven’t been told that’s wrong and others have told me that chapter length is purely subjective, is there some advantage to shorter chapter lengths?

  13. Wow, thanks! Loved this post. As I’ve been writing my book, chapter endings have started to come easier; as in they now (mostly) end with one of the 11 chapter endings you listed.

    But my book is a ‘quieter’ novel without guns or fights or a ton of bad guys, so I have to find other ways to rack up the tension. Your list is definitely helpful. Going to bookmark it for future reference 🙂

    ~Arianna

  14. Okay, so I’m dying to know…WHAT HAPPENS after all the promised conflicts to come?!? 😉 You have a great way of making the reader want to know what’s next even in a podcast.

  15. @Lee: The short answer is: Do whatever the story requires. There is no “rule” stating that chapters have to be a certain length. However, shorter chapters are in favor these days, both because they lend themselves to a faster pacing and because they tempt readers to read “just one more” before closing the book. Longer chapters can be intimidating to readers.

    @Arianna: Conflict comes in many flavors, and not all of them are seasoned with mayhem. Sounds like you’ve got a handle on it!

    @Lynn: Thanks! So glad you’re enjoying the podcast version.

  16. It always drove me nuts as a kid when my mom would say, “Read to the end of the chapter and then turn out the light.” The end of the chapter is like dangling a donut in front of a starving teenager! Ugh! Thanks for the beautiful tips to create that same page-turning magic!

  17. Thank you, these hint are very, very helpful! I’ll try to use them in my writing.

  18. @Bethany: Ha! Authors and moms obviously aren’t on the same page, are they?

    @Brianna: Glad you found them useful!

  19. Great list! They all do keep the pages turning for me. My friend was thrilled to receive your two books for Christmas. She’s an avid reader. The picture is my kids on my old blog. They were trying to talk me into doing “peace” this year. “E’s” are hard with only two kids. My new blog is http://www.dianeestrella.com :O)

  20. I hope your friend enjoys the books!

  21. We were discussing this in my creative writing class last semester…I wish I could have cited this post! As always, great advice.

  22. Chapters breaks are one of those things that merit a lot of discussing! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  23. This was SO Great! Thank you!

    I was glad to discover I usually use most of this (as you said in your other post, I never “tie up my scenes with a ribbon”), but some of the tips are really helpful.

    Thanks one again!

    xoxo

    M.

  24. Most of us instinctively understand the need to leave a few ends hanging at the end of a scene or chapter. But it never hurts to have a full range of tools in our kit.

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