Image: Matthew Loffhagen
What are you binge-watching right now? Isn’t it glorious and indulgent, that feeling of helpless surrender? Just one more, you tell yourself, trying to ignore the alarm clock glaring at you. It’s precisely this compulsion you want to inspire in your readers, and one surefire way is to write strong and strategic chapter endings.
Chapter breaks, like scene breaks, shouldn’t be thrown in willy-nilly, but should be used intentionally for narrative purpose. How do we write skillful chapter endings to keep our readers eagerly turning pages into the wee hours of the morning? I want to show you four examples from my favorite childhood book, C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew.
Suspense comes in many forms. But you can always recognize it by that looming feeling of the inevitable. It’s the hair rising on the back of your neck, that shiver creeping up your spine. You can’t put the story down in the midst of such a premonition. You might think that resolving the moment of suspense is what will compel readers, but actually it’s suspending and drawing out the moment at its highest point that keeps them hanging on.
A great moment of suspense comes early in The Magician’s Nephew. One rainy summer in England, young Polly and Digory entertain themselves by climbing around other people’s attics—connected in their block of London row houses by a long dark tunnel—one of which belongs to Digory’s mad uncle and is expressly forbidden to him. And so, one fateful day the kids miscalculate the distance and find themselves standing in Uncle Andrew’s attic, which turns out to be the site of his experiments with a tray of glowing, humming rings. When the kids are discovered, Uncle Andrew promptly locks the door, saying they’re just in time to test his experiment because, well, “a guinea-pig can’t tell you anything. And you can’t explain to it how to come back.” Uncle Andrew finally agrees to let the kids go on their way, but insists that Polly take one of those pretty rings with her.
“Polly! Don’t be a fool!” [Digory] shouted. “Don’t touch them.”
It was too late. Exactly as he spoke, Polly’s hand went out to touch one of the rings. And immediately, without a flash or a noise or a warning of any sort, there was no Polly. Digory and his uncle were alone in the room.
Don’t you just have to turn the page? Where did Polly go?! What will happen to Digory, locked up with his deranged uncle?
Where is a moment of suspense in your story? You just might find it’s the perfect place for a chapter break to keep readers on the edge of their seats.
2. Classic Cliffhanger
We all know those delicious hard-stop moments that make for the best cliffhangers. They work every time and for good reason—they leave us with a burning question that cannot go unanswered. These moments can be flashy and heart pounding or they can be quieter but no less intense; either way, they leave you on the brink of some great unknown into which you must keep reading.
At the end of the very next chapter in The Magician’s Nephew, we get one of these quieter cliffhanger moments. Receiving a brief explanation by Uncle Andrew of how the rings supposedly work, Digory goes after Polly to try and bring her back. He’s soon rushing up through water and climbing out of a small pool into a forest dotted with similar pools every few feet. He and Polly name this place “the Wood between the Worlds”, and figure out how to use their rings in “their” pool to get home. But wait, they decide, why not stay a while and explore a few of these worlds first?
When they had both put on their [rings] and come back to the edge of the water, and taken hands again, they were certainly a good deal more cheerful and less solemn than they had been the first time.
“One—Two—Three—Go!” said Digory. And they jumped.
What sort of world will Digory and Polly come out in? Will it be benevolent and warm like the Wood or cold and menacing like Uncle Andrew—or something else altogether? Are they even sure they can get back from that world?
What are the cliffhanger moments in your story? Do they come in loud with explosions and bullets or in the quiet breath right on the brink of that unknown? This might be just the place for your chapter break.
Your story is rife with tension: a strained conversation, an awkward social scene, a moment of terrifying uncertainty, the ache of unrequited love, and the list goes on. These bits of tension, great and small, keep readers hanging on your every word. If you have a long scene where the tension builds slowly over time, what about using a chapter break at a particularly taught moment? Take a look at one such moment in our example story.
Unfortunately, Polly and Digory get themselves into a bit of trouble in the first world they visit. They awaken a fierce queen (or witch, as Lewis begins to call her) from an enchanted sleep, and she manages to hitch a ride back to London by grabbing hold of Polly’s hair at the last second. Uncle Andrew is equally thrilled and terrified by this woman and quickly tries to usher her out of the house, but he needs a cab fare from Aunt Letty first. Aunt Letty is working away in the parlor and doesn’t want to hear a word of it. It’s such a great little shot of domestic tension here, and my favorite part is how the next chapter begins; take a look:
At that moment the door was suddenly flung open. Aunt Letty looked round and saw with amazement that an enormous woman, splendidly dressed, with bare arms and flashing eyes, stood in the doorway. It was the Witch.[Break]
“Now, slave, how long am I to wait for my chariot?” thundered the Witch.
Can you see the effect here? The scene is continuous, and so it could have just gone on without a break. But by ending the chapter there, you get this great pause at that ridiculous moment when Aunt Letty, prim and proper in her London parlor, is confronted with the Empress Jadis from another world. Do you have one such moment in your story that might benefit from that little pause of a perfectly placed chapter break?
You’ve seen it coming for a while now, all the foreshadowing and the conflict have been leading up to some big plot twist, and you can feel it growing closer. Something major is about to happen, a character is about to undergo a serious change or get a very unexpected surprise. You might know ahead of time or you might just sense that something is coming. Ending a chapter at this moment of revelation is a perfect way to propel a reader on to find out what’s next.
The kids try to make things right and get the Witch back to her world, but their only chance is out on the street where a crowd has gathered around Jadis, who is making a fuss and assaulting a policeman. Digory and Polly grab hold of her and slip on their rings, soon finding themselves (and a few more of the London crowd they didn’t intend to bring with them) in another, utterly dark world. A song resonates through the darkness, and the world around them takes shape: a sun and stars appear, grass and trees sprout from the barren ground, creatures form out of swelling mounds of earth. They witness the birth of this new world, sung into existence by its only inhabitant, a majestic lion. The small crowd is entranced—all except Jadis and Uncle Andrew, of course, who are very uncomfortable. And abruptly the singing stops.
Then there came a swift flash like fire … and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying:
“Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”[Break]
It was of course the lion’s voice.
What have they gotten themselves into? Don’t you want your readers flipping the page to find out? Try using a chapter break to heighten a moment of revelation in your story.
There are many ways to construct chapter breaks in your book, and sometimes you just need to place one for practical reasons—to change time or place or point of view. But wherever possible, be strategic about using a break to its fullest potential for narrative effect too.
I hope these four examples have shown you that a perfectly placed pause can work wonders for keeping readers hanging on your every word, consenting, Okay, just one more.
What books have inspired you with their strong chapter endings? What other techniques have you used for chapter breaks in your stories?