The Lazy Technique That Can Cripple Any Suspenseful Chapter Ending

The Lazy Technique That Can Cripple Suspenseful Chapter Endings

This week’s video offers an example of what might seem to be a great technique for chapter endings, and then shows you why it’s lazy and how to make it fantastic instead.


Video Transcript:

Do you know what’s the most dangerous part of your book? Try chapter endings. These are subliminal signals to your readers’ brains, nudging them to look away from the page, check the clock, evaluate their hunger level, and maybe, just maybe, put your book down. And once it’s down, there’s never any guarantee, it’s going back up.

So you’ve got to give your chapter endings extra love. This doesn’t mean cliffhangers, but it does mean ending with a hook—an unanswered question that will grab readers’ attention and keep them reading.

Ambassadors Henry JamesHowever, there’s a really easy way for writers to fool themselves into thinking they’re accomplishing killer hooks for their chapter endings when really they’re just being lazy. No disrespect intended to classic author Henry James, but his novel The Ambassadors gives us a good example of what not to do. One of his chapter endings offers the following closing line,

…while he leaned against a post and continued to look out, he saw something that gave him a sharper arrest.

End of chapter.

The Lazy Technique That Can Cripple Suspenseful Chapter Endings

So what’s so bad about this? It tells readers that something is about to happen, right? That should hook their curiosity and get them to turn the page, shouldn’t it?

The problem here is the lack of specificity. James essentially tells readers that “something is going to happen in the next chapter.” The problem is he’s not telling readers anything they didn’t already know. Of course, something happens in the next chapter. Otherwise, why is there another chapter? That, in itself, is not a hook.

A hook gives readers a specific hint about what’s around the corner. How much more interesting if James had written that his character “looked out and saw a purple alien” or “His Majesty in a runaway coach” or “a beggar woman with leprosy.” All of these options raise some very interesting specific questions in readers’ minds, and those questions are what’s going to make them want to keep reading right past those dangerous chapter endings.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you hooked readers in your recent chapter endings?

The Lazy Technique That Can Cripple Any Suspenseful Chapter Ending

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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.


  1. That’s a great reminder. Being specific evokes more interest and curiosity in any situation – for example, take the headline of an ad: “The best shoes in the world” will never get as many people to read the ad as “The most comfortable shoes you will ever wear for an unbeatable price.” The second headline offers the reader a specific promise and now he wants to find out what this is all about, whether this could be true, etc…

    I believe that being specific dosn’t just work with the “what”, you could also be specific about emotions. “Sharp arrest” is too vague to evoke a lot of interrest (maybe it worked 100 years ago, before MTV came along…). But how about “…while he leaned against a post and continued to look out, he saw somebody he hadn’t seen in twenty years and whose sight almost broke his heart.”

    This new version also mentions “somebody” instead of “something.” “Somebody” is always more interesting, because it leaves more room for drama and conflict.

    You could be specific in several different ways. Hint at something your readers can almost imagine, but not quite. Their inquiring minds will then want to know the whole picture.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Excellent points. It’s the characters’ reactions that ultimately going to be the most interesting part of any hook.

  2. I once analyzed every chapter or scene ending in my now published manuscript, and came up with a list of techniques. (Did the same for scene openings, too.) Can´t share it right now because my main computer is in for servicing. (Grrr!)

    However, the ending of the first chapter of my WIP ends with the line, ¨I can´t see what´s happening,¨which by itself isn´t particularly exciting.


    I´ve raised tons of story questions earlier in the chapter: who is the man who ran by her in a blur and whom everyone (TV people included) ran after? who is the woman who tried to help her? what´s going to happen to the protagonist who is handcuffed and locked in the back of a police car because she freaked out in court and punched the defendant in the face?

    My biggest challenge doesn´t seem to be chapter endings, nor do I end up with sagging middles or unsatisfactory endings. What I find challenging are the second, third and fourth chapters. I think they slow down too much, although each moves the story forward. However, I search in vain for ways to up the stakes in those chapters and come up empty. People tell me that my actual writing, voice and characterizations save those chapters, but that´s not good enough, in my opinion.

    I´ve downloaded your book on structure (can´t remember which one)…maybe I´ll find my answer there. I´ll let you know.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The important thing to remember about the first eighth of your book, prior to the Inciting Event/Call to Adventure, is that it’s *supposed* to be all setup. It’s all about introducing the characters, their world, their relationships, their goals and their conflict. The stakes don’t have to be super high that point. You’re not so much endangering whatever it is the character cares about as you are demonstrating what they care about. It’s the characters themselves who must carry the story in these early chapters—and tone and voice are a HUGE part of that.

      • K.M.

        You’re such a good teacher — as in this enlightening example:

        “You’re not so much endangering whatever it is the character cares about as you are demonstrating what they care about.”

        It’s so clear! At this point in the story we’re only clarifying the ‘set-up.’ Leave the danger for later, where it will better serve your drama.

        Love it!

        Thanks — and don’t get tired.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The “set-up” part of the story in the first eighth is something that’s really coming into clear focus for me here lately. A proper understanding of the Inciting Event as the turning point in the First Act makes all the difference. Glad the thought was helpful to you!

  3. I think writing a cliffhanger into every chapter ending, even the specific kind, can get monotonous and predictable. I think it works much better if the entire chapter builds up to that unresolved something that keeps the reader going.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s important to recognize the difference between a cliffhanger and a hook. A hook raises a question. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a question because the plot took a jaw-dropping turn. Admittedly, my examples about the purple alien and his friend would be a cliffhanger in a book of this sort. In the next chapter in James’s book, it turns out that the protagonist sees two people together who aren’t supposed to be together. To fix the problem, all James had to do was indicate that at the end of his chapter. No cliffhanger; just a hook.

  4. This reminds me of the ending of the Fellowship of the Ring movie. Frodo and Sam are standing on the brink of a hill, looking out over the land of Mordor. It’s a specific promise for what will happen in the next movie.

    But personally, I’m not a fan of cliffhangers at the end of a story. It’s especially irritating if there is a long wait for the next book/movie. I think it’s kind of cheap. And a good story can make the reader come back for more all of it’s own without needing a cliffhanger. But chapter endings are a whole different thing! 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re not alone in disliking cliffhangers. It’s a fine line to walk. We want readers to be hooked into the next story, but we also have to give them satisfaction in the *current* story, so they don’t end feeling frustrated.

      • Madeline T says

        Worse than a cliffhanger ending is when an author cuts off the book right in the middle of a scene! I encountered a trilogy like this recently where the first book was ended beautifully and made me want to read the second. However, the second ended almost in mid-thought, it wasn’t even a proper cliffhanger! If I hadn’t had the third book right there – if I’d had to wait some indeterminable amount of time for the third book to be published – I never would have read it. I think that translates equally to chapter endings. It’s a fine line at times, but frustrating a reader just to get them to start the next chapter is never wise, in my opinion.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I agree. I tend to wait to read most series until all the books are published, so it saves me the angst (and forgetfulness) of waiting. But readers who are buying the books *as* they’re coming out are likely to be less patient and forgiving.

  5. I never thought of this but it is very important o.O Thank you! Truth enough is obvious something IS going to happen or there would be no chapter!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yep. The trick is figuring out a way to let readers know just how *awesome* that next chapter is going to be!

  6. That’s so true. Without specificity, you’re merely pointing out the obvious. I think I’ve been guilty of this a few times. I teach high school English, and this year I wrote an episodic story for them that I shared every couple weeks. For the most part, I ended each episode hinting at what would happen next, but I know a few I ended on a vague cliffhanger. And I think the main reason is that I didn’t know where the story was going next. Shows the value of story planning. This will definitely be helpful in future chapter endings. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good point. At the least, if you’re pantsing it, revisions will always allow us to go back and adjust chapter hooks with better hindsight.

  7. love the end of chapter .. predictable but epic..

  8. Aspiring Author says

    Chapter endings have always been an issue for me. I write out my scenes with a lot of suspense, but they are ruined by my uninteresting endings.
    For example, I wrote a chapter where one of my main characters is on verge of death, and her friend is with her in the ambulance taking her to the hospital, where the doctors can (and will) find out that she is a part monster. There is a lot of action and suspense in this scene, and the chapter is very good until the conclusion, where I end lamely:
    “As they drove to the hospital, anxious thoughts plagued Kai’s mind. What if they found out? What if they can’t save Katherine? What if they won’t save Katherine? He tried to stay awake; it was his job to protect her. But the night and the repeated wailing of the ambulance’s sirens finally managed to lull him into a fitful sleep.”
    You have great pointers that make a lot of sense when I read them, but when I am physically writing my story, my mind goes blank.
    Could you please explain how tie my events together without giving them too much of a solid conclusion?
    Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Often, you can find a good hook for the chapter ending by cutting it a few sentences shorter. For instance, I would consider ending your chapter snippet with, “What if they won’t save Katherine?”


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