Many thanks for your patience. The past week has been an amazing ride for me, traveling up and down the west coast, meeting a few hundred people, and signing a few hundred books. And losing a few hundred strands of hair...
Also, if you took part in the pre-order promo for The Fold, word on the web is that galley copies are starting to land. Hopefully you got one and can now use it as the teaching example it was always intended to be.
But enough about me and my book. Let’s talk about you and your book...
A few weeks back I opened the floor for suggestions (it’s always open, but I just pointed out all the space on the dancefloor) and a good double-handful of ideas came in. This week’s little rant comes from one of them. And it’s a good topic I wish I’d thought of before.
The question was about endings. More specifically, chapter endings. How do I find the right moment to end a chapter without it feeling either dragged out or cut off in mid thought?
Clive Cussler (author of Raise the Titanic and many, many others) commented years back that chapters should be like potato chips. Each one should be easy to digest and leave you wanting another one. That was a great rule that stuck with me early on, and I’ve tried very hard to follow it ever since.
So, here are a half dozen places in a story I’d usually pick to end a chapter on.
A question—These moments make great chapter endings. Sometimes the question’s asked out loud, sometimes it’s implied. When a what/how/why moment comes up in my story, it’s going to make people want to turn the page in the hopes of learning the answer. So that’s a great place to end a chapter.
Keep in mind, though, this only works if there’s a real question and the reader doesn’t know the answer. Whether or not the characters know is irrelevant (I’m the writer, I can make them go to the next chapter with very little effort). If this question is already answered or the answer is painfully obvious, it’s not a great place to end. If I’m writing the novelization of Jurassic World. “Wait, there are dinosaurs on this island?” isn’t a great stopping point.
A big reveal—The flipside of the above. Getting a long-sought answer can be powerful, especially if it’s going to affect what happens next in my story. Even if it’s not an answer, revealing a solid, key bit on information can give a moment a lot of weight and make it a great place to pause. When I tell you “the dinosaurs have gotten loose,” that’s a big moment that’s going to change everything from here on in.
Again, though, this one will only work for me if it’s an actual reveal. Vague responses and fuzzy reasoning don’t make for good answers, in real life or in a novel. Neither do answers we already know. If I try to dramatically reveal that California is on the west coast of the U.S., that’s not going to do much for anyone.
A big twist—Similar to the reveal but not the same. I’ve talked about the difference between mysteries and twists a few times in the past, so I won’t go into that again here. A twist is a fantastic moment for me to end a chapter because it’s very nature means everything’s going to change. My readers will go to the next chapter just to see the fallout from a good twist.
I need to be very clear, though, on what a twist is and how it works in my story. If I fumble it, either with my reveal or what I’m revealing, it’s not going to have any weight or ramifications. Which means my readers have no reason to turn the page.
A big setback—Any story’s going to have its ups and downs. When my character gets his or her feet kicked out from under them, deliberately or accidentally, the reader wants to know how that character’s going to recover. Are they going to stay down? Fight back? Come atthings from a new angle? I need to turn to the next chapter and find out!
The catch for this one (there’s a lot of catches on these, have you noticed?) is that I need to have either a good solid character or a really compelling plot for this to work. If my reader doesn’t care about the stakes—either internal or external—they’re not going to care when my characters fail.
A big leap forward—The flipside to the setback. When my characters find the hidden button, manage to make it past the security system, or get the power running to the velociraptor fences again, this is an achievement. We can all pause for breath, and that’s a good time to roll things over into the next chapter. There’s a natural break there, and I should take advantage of that existing rhythm.
Again, though...I need strong characters or plot for this to work. I also need to be aware of what’s going to be seen as a leap forward. Sharpening a pencil or avoiding a sleeping guard are not big accomplishments, so my readers won’t feel that need to pause for a breath.
A cliffhanger—The classic. I just stop right in the middle of things, right as the action is kicking into high gear. My antagonist pulls the trigger, the T-Rex gets me cornered in the museum, or the zombies spin around when I accidentally step on a branch. These are moments when the reader must know what happens next. And if the next chapter is there, the reader will go to it.
The catch here is that the reader needs to care about my characters. If not, there’s no tension when I put said character into that dangerous spot. It’s like me telling you someone’s in danger. You care in a sort of abstract way, but how often are you going to ask a follow-up question?
So, there’s six solid ways to end a chapter. Each one’s got a slightly different flavor and works better in different situations.
However, going over this list, there’s sort of a glaring issue, isn’t there? What if my story doesn’t have any of these things? What am I supposed to do if I’m a hundred or so pages in and I haven’t had a big setback, or a reveal, or asked any questions?
Well, my first thought would be... why don’t I have any of these things?
A while back I did a big block of posts about structure. As I mentioned above, every story’s going to have ups and downs. There will be unanswered questions, revealed answers, challenges, and successes. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a torrid period romance, a sci-fi space epic, or an apocalyptic horror novel. Every story is going to have these moments. They’ll take different forms, but they will always be there.
Y’see Timmy, if those moments aren’t there... well, my story has bigger issues than figuring out where chapter breaks should be. In fact, this probably is part of the reason I can’t figure out where chapter breaks should go. Without these highs and lows, my story’s just going to be a drab, monotone mess. And it’s impossible to place breaks in something like that because it’s all the same. There aren’t any landmarks that stand out.
So I need to make sure I have something that can be broken up. And then I can break it up.
Next time, I might offer a few quick tips on drafting.
Until then, go write.