“Chapter endings in fiction have something in common with the Roman god Janus—they, like Janus, look both backward and forward,” writes Fiction Editor Beth Hill on The Editor’s Blog. “They are transitions between what has already happened and what is about to break loose. They are links and doorways and connection points.”
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, according to K.M. Weiland, author of 5 Secrets of Story Structure: How to Write a Novel That Stands Out.
What Is the Structure of Book Chapters? Weiland offers an answer in her article 4 Ideas for Ending Book Chapters So Readers Will Kill to Know What Happens Next:
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.
Below is an excerpt from Your First Novel : A Published Author and a Top Agent Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb has some gems of wisdom about chapter breaks as well as examples of some from popular novels:
Novels have all different styles of chapter breaks. Some have dozens of short chapters, some have a few huge chapters (often called parts or books), and some have no chapters at all. The chapter break should be placed strategically. If, while constructing your outline, the thought of separating your plot into chapters confuses you or saps your energy, don’t make chapter break decisions yet. Write a first draft of the whole novel, then come back to this section to place your chapter breaks with intention during your rewrite. But if, as you think about your story, the discussion of chapter breaks stimulates your imagination, construct your outline with chapter breaks included.
Take a look at your favorite novels. How did the author break up the story? The most important thing is that at the end of each chapter the reader should be craving the next chapter. Make the reader want to turn the next page. An old-fashioned cliffhanger is not required (though they still work), but tension of some kind is essential. End not where the action lulls but where it is the most dynamic. Give the reader new information right before you cut him off. The following are examples of strategic chapter breaks.
BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY, BY HELEN FIELDING
14 CHAPTERS, 271 PAGES
At the end of chapter “April” Bridget hints that she might be pregnant and then titles the next chapter “Mother-to-Be”—again, we have no self-control. We must read on. It’s especially easy to keep reading Fielding’s novel because the diary entries are often short. Just one more, we tell ourselves. It’s addictive.
LULLABY, BY CHUCK PALAHNIUK
44 CHAPTERS, 260 PAGES
Chapter six: The hero tries a killer poem out on his unsuspecting boss. If it works, the man will be dead before daybreak. Instead of ending the chapter with news of the death, Palahniuk stops right after the hero decides not to try to explain the experiment to his employer.
“We both need some rest, Duncan,” I say, “Maybe we can talk about it in the morning.”
Of course we can’t wait—we have to start chapter seven.
THE PRINCESS BRIDE, BY WILLIAM GOLDMAN
8 CHAPTERS, 399 PAGES
Chapter five: We know one of the characters has spent his whole life trying to track down an anonymous nobleman with six fingers on his right hand. At the end of chapter five another character notices that the man who is about to torture him to death has an extra finger on one hand! It doesn’t matter that chapter five was one hundred pages long, or that chapter six is fifty-nine pages long; we have to turn the page.