Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Chapter endings in fiction have something in common with the Roman god Janus—they, like Janus, look both backward and forward. They are transitions between what has already happened and what is about to break loose. They are links and doorways and connection points.
The end of a chapter—the last scene, the last paragraph, the last sentence—brings closure to one chapter but at the same time needs to lead readers and characters to the next scene and chapter and story event.
A chapter ending that doesn’t satisfy the events of the chapter, at least some of them, hasn’t done its work. And the chapter ending that doesn’t pull readers deeper into the story, fill them with anticipation for what comes next, also hasn’t accomplished all that it should.
A chapter ending that does neither fails the chapter completely.
So, what in particular should chapter endings accomplish, and how does a writer make sure she writes successful endings?
Except for the first and last chapters, the purposes of most chapter endings will be similar.
Endings will address and resolve or address and deepen story problems introduced in that chapter and/or earlier chapters. No, not every problem is resolved, but there will be some closure. At the same time, some new event or twist will raise the tension level. Will raise the interest level of readers. Will entice. Some answers will be provided, but those answers themselves might be what drives character and reader into the next story event. And into the next chapter.
Successful endings will raise tension for readers, keeping them involved in the story, keep them wanting to read just one chapter more, just until they find out who planted the bomb or who the prime suspect is or how hero and heroine will get together.
Not every chapter will have the same degree of closure as surrounding chapters; you’ll want variety in the feel of chapter endings, just as you want variety in many of the elements of your writing. But endings should reflect in some way what has come before, if only to mention an event or character or repeat a word or phrasing that will tie story elements together.
That is, you’ll use chapter endings to make connections to earlier events so events and characters are related in some manner. Otherwise your story will lack that interlocking feel that so appeals, that makes a story complete and full in itself.
Could you write for several chapters without such connections? Sure. Some authors—think writers of geo-political thrillers—may have a string of seemingly unrelated chapters. But eventually connections are made. Connections are revealed.
While a good chapter ending doesn’t ignore, with a few exceptions, what has come before, it definitely doesn’t ignore what comes after. This is where chapter-ending hooks come in.
Chapters end with hooks to draw, entice, push, or pull readers into the next chapter. Without appropriate hooks, readers have little reason to keep turning pages. If you satisfy past story events without giving the reader something to look forward to, readers can easily put your book aside.
Instead, you want readers unable to stop reading. You want them staying up late to finish the next chapter and then the next. You want them unable to put your story down because they just have to find out what villain Xerxes has in store for your hero or how your protagonist is going to pull his foot out of his mouth after his last boneheaded comment.
Chapter endings give readers an excuse to read on.
In simple terms, what do good chapter endings do? What’s their purpose? What should a hook accomplish? What shouldn’t a chapter ending do?
Good endings are goads and prompts and impossible-to-resist temptations.
Chapter endings will not put readers to sleep.
Chapter endings should introduce or raise tension and/or conflict.
Chapter endings can introduce new problems.
Chapter endings can reveal something new about a character’s personality or his reasons for being involved in whatever story issue has a hold on him.
Chapter endings can introduce new characters, new aspects of old characters, new events, and secrets.
Chapters can end with dialogue or with action. They should contain something new or surprising.
Chapters should never end with a character yawning and going to bed—readers will join that character in turning in.
Could you get around this final prohibition? Sure. You know I’m all for trying anything. But yawns and beds make readers want to put books down, not keep reading. Are you willing to risk putting your readers to sleep?
Chapter endings (other than the one for the final chapter) will not resolve all story issues revealed up to that point. If they did, readers would have no reason to keep reading. If all the story issues you introduced prior to chapter ten are solved by the end of chapter ten, what reason have you given readers for turning to chapter eleven? If there are no outstanding issues to be solved or resolved or pondered, chapter eleven would be just like chapter one and you’d be starting your story over.
While the ends of most chapters have similar purposes, both chapter one and your final chapter have additional purposes.
The end of the first chapter should compel readers to read on. A good ending for the first chapter will promise answers to story questions asked in that chapter. Chapter two will of course not answer every question, but a good ending to chapter one will convince readers answers wait just beyond the turn of the page.
The end of chapter one should show your protagonist (or your antagonist, if you choose to begin with him) dealing with the revelations of chapter one. Or it might show some new problem ready to fall on your main character’s head.
The end of chapter one should give the reader some idea of what the book will be about, whether we’re talking plot or tone or emotional impact. It should ensure that the story hook has been baited and dangled in front of the reader.
The end of chapter one, as with all of that first chapter, should make promises to the reader. Promises that the following chapters will need to fulfill.
The end of chapter one has to make the reader’s choice to purchase or read your book worthwhile. A reader still near the beginning of a book can be easily turned aside—he doesn’t have a lot invested in terms of time or emotion or thought spent on figuring out what’s been going on. That first chapter break is a time readers can still find it easy to put aside a new book—make sure you don’t give them any reason to put the book down and give them several reasons to keep reading, to invest their lives in your story world.
Make the end of chapter one as or more enticing than the opening lines. Convince readers they made the right choice in picking up your book.
Give not only readers but characters a reason to get involved in the plot you’ve crafted for them.
The end of the final chapter will wrap up story threads, answer the most important of the story problems, will show whodunit, will bring the lovers together, will follow the hero to his home with his prize.
The end of the final chapter may also tease readers about the next story in a series.
This chapter may end with emotion, creating resonance for the reader, giving her feelings that last for more than just the moment it takes to read the final pages.
For the final chapter, think fulfillment. Fulfillment of every tease you’ve written, every enticement you placed before character and reader. Think completion and resolution. Think of making the investment in your story world well worth the reader’s time and money.
And worth every other activity he had to forgo in order to spend time with your characters.
I’ve talked about story resolutions in a couple of articles—Deliver the Payoff and Resolution: Tying up the Ends—so you can find more specifics about the final chapters of your novel. For purposes of this article, just know that the final chapter truly has to bring closure. Major plot threads cannot remain loose or unresolved. Characters have to complete their journeys. Some kind of ending must occur. And the more satisfying that ending is for character and reader, the more likely readers will return for the next of your stories.
Use your chapter endings to look back and to look forward. Use them to satisfy, on the one hand, and stir up on the other.
Use cliffhanger endings if that works for the genre and the style of story you want to tell.
Use anticipation and fear and any emotion that will keep readers turning pages.
Shake up your story and characters with the unexpected at a chapter’s end. Satisfy and tease at the same time.
Write captivating chapter endings.
Write enthralling fiction.