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The Last Words: How to End a Chapter

I admit, as a writer, I have a bit of a “thing” when it comes to writing endings. While overall I do not consider myself a perfectionist, the ending is something that I will re-do again and again — on first draft, mind — in order to get it it just perfect.  The final page, the final paragraph, right down to the final sentence, each need to pack not only an emotional impact, but they need to set the stage and make the reader eager to keep reading. There are many ways that a chapter can end, and depending on where you are in your overall narrative, you will find yourself using different techniques at different points in the chapter. If, like me, you sometimes find yourself struggling to end things, here are a few suggestions for writing the end of a chapter that I have picked up along the way.

Cliffhanger ending

Most readers find books that end on a cliffhanger to be irritating, particularly if they have a long wait in store for the next book in the series. However, ending a chapter on a cliffhanger can be a great way to keep the reader interested. The advantages are obvious — your reader needs to keep reading in order to find out what happens. However, if your chapters consistently end on cliffhangers you risk irritating your reader, who will soon catch onto your (let’s face it, rather cheap) trick. The other problem with a cliffhanger ending is that you do not necessarily end the narrative arc of the chapter, meaning that you will have to begin the next chapter where the first one left off. Personally, I prefer to treat each chapter like a short story, making sure that I see it through to the end. There can be exceptions to this rule, and at times a cliffhanger chapter is exactly what is needed for maximum tension, but use it sparingly.

Ambiguous ending

A close kin to the cliffhanger ending is the ambiguous ending. The ambiguous ending has a slight advantage over the cliffhanger ending in that the author can end ambiguously while also having wrapped up the narrative arc of the chapter. In one of my chapters of my current manuscript, at the end of all of the chapter’s action the main character has to have an conversation with her husband. She is going to tell him something that will not make him very happy, but rather than show the conversation, I end the chapter with the first words of the conversation. Later on, in the next chapter, we learn what his reaction had been. This isn’t exactly a cliffhanger — it is reasonably clear from context that the husband won’t like what the wife has to say. However, we leave on that slight note of ambiguity, leaving the reader curious about how everything ended up between the couple. You can create ambiguity by introducing a puzzling line of dialogue. I find the ambiguous ending to be a compromise between a cliffhanger and what I call a neat ending. You can wrap up the threads of the chapter, but still introduce question that needs to be answered next chapter.

Introduce a new conflict or question

Sometimes the very end of a chapter is a great place to introduce a new problem or conflict for your characters. In one of my early chapters, in the last few paragraphs my main character learns that her mother was murdered but she does not know who did it. This complicates things, obviously, for my character, and creates a mystery that must be solved. On a lower stakes note, in a later chapter, in the final sentence my main character invites her cousin to stay at her home, despite knowing that her husband strongly dislikes the cousin. This sets up a potential conflict between the husband and the cousin as well as between husband and wife. The conflict that you introduce does not have to be a high stakes game changer. It can be any kind of fly in the ointment, something that will vex your character in the coming chapters.

Introduce a new character or setting

While quite the same thing as introducing a new conflict or problem, introducing a new character or a new setting can have a similar effect. It creates a question in your reader’s mind: who is this person? How will they effect the story? What is this place? How will being here be different from being elsewhere. Aside from arrivals often being a good natural stopping point, arrivals which introduce a new setting give the reader something to anticipate. Ending which introduce a new character into the mix likewise can be intriguing to the reader. This can be a particularly effective way of introducing both love interests and antagonists, people who will change things for the main character in a big way. Introducing new elements at the end of the story draws attention to them, and signals importance, so do not use this technique on inconsequential characters or places. In one of my chapters my character meets her cousin, who she has not seen in more than a decade, at the end of the chapter. His appearance at the end of the chapter is a signal to the reader that this person is important, and will play a major role in the narrative. Introduce a new character at the end of a chapter and your reader will automatically take note.

The neat ending

This is the chapter that ends on a satisfying note. It completes the narrative arc of the chapter, and signifies a point in the narrative where all is well. The neat ending is more likely to be found in the first half of the story than the second. This could be the point in the story where the characters have what they think they want, when they are moments from losing everything. This could be the moment before everything changes, or, it could be a moment later in the narrative, building towards a happy ending. If your story involves romance, this could be the chapter ending where the characters are happy and together. This could be the moment when your characters defeat a major foe on the battlefield. The neat ending could also be simply the natural stopping point for those particular scenes. Maybe your characters are on a journey, and they’ve stopped and made camp for the night. That’s going to be a fairly natural place to stop a chapter, and if they get ambushed in the middle of the night, well, you’ve got the perfect beginning to the next chapter. A note of warning however: readers will get bored if every chapter ends with your character going to bed, and begins with them waking up. Once in awhile is alright, but vary things a bit.

The philosophical ending

Every chapter should have a central theme, the message that the chapter is conveying, in addition to the overall theme of the novel. Strengthening the theme of your chapter or novel is one of you duties as the author. You may not incorporate the theme into every sentence, and some chapters will have a clearer theme than others. Deeply thematic chapters often call for a philosophical ending in which the final words of the chapter reflect upon the theme in some way. I have a chapter in my manuscript that reflects upon the relationship between bravery and pride — what pride makes us do, why it is important to some, and why it is ultimately unimportant, and how true bravery often means giving up one’s pride. Towards the end of the chapter the narrative is mostly within the mind of the main character as she reflects upon what pride has cost her, and decides the truly brave people in her life are not the proudest ones. A chapter that comes to a sort of thematic conclusion can be very satisfying to read, and both gives us greater insight into the inner minds of the characters and adds overall depth to the narrative.

One last note about chapter endings

Remember, the way that you end the chapter will have a direct effect on the way that your next chapter starts. Starting or ending at the wrong place in the narrative can have a disastrous effect on the narrative. Occasionally, I have become so enamored with a final image or final line that I have forced myself to end a chapter at an inappropriate place, leaving unfinished action to carry over into the next chapter. This can create a thematic disconnect between the beginning of a chapter and the end. Overall, the main job of the author in crafting a chapter is to create narrative that is cohesive and satisfying to read. A disjointed chapter, or a chapter that seems to end too soon, too abruptly, or, on the other end, one that seems to drag on for too long, can disrupt the overall pacing of your novel in a major way, so choose your ending point with care.

 

 

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