Individual chapters and scenes are important because they allow breaks in the text, which are comforting for readers, and provide structure for the story. Unfortunately, they also make convenient stopping points. You seldom find readers putting down a book in the middle of a scene; they typically wait for a scene or chapter break. So don’t make it easy for them. Instead, write your chapter endings in a way that makes it really hard for readers to stop.
I’d like to share some examples of kinds of chapter endings that do this really well. To keep things simple, I’m using examples from just one book: The Passage by Justin Cronin. For clarity, here’s my quickest, no-nonsense summary:
The U.S. Army creates a biological weapon that they perfect through testing on death-row inmates. Per usual, they can’t contain it, and their immortal-vampire-making virus gets loose, infecting most of the world. Ninety-two years later, pockets of survivors live in a dystopian America, in isolated camps protected by walls, spotlights, and a cobbled-together power grid that is finally running out of juice. When that happens, they’re pretty much done for. How will they survive against the Virals? And is the existence awaiting them one that’s worth fighting for?
I hope I did the story line justice, because this is honestly one of the best books I’ve read in years. It’s completely riveting for many reasons, but the biggest factor is the compelling chapter endings. We all know that cliffhangers and foreshadowing are effective methods for urging readers along, but I want to go deeper to give you more specific ways to end your chapters and keep readers engaged. Here are the different kinds of endings Cronin uses to create a book that—forgive the cliché—I literally couldn’t put down.
1. Introduce Something Shocking
This is your typical cliffhanger, with something unexpected happening in the last lines of the chapter. It can be in the form of an event or announcement, and it usually has some kind of emotional impact, eliciting shock, anger, or a strong sense of foreboding that keeps readers engaged.
At the end of chapter three, one of the FBI agents in charge of “liberating” the inmates for testing is having doubts. He doesn’t know exactly what the inmates are being gathered for, but he knows it can’t be good. This is his state of mind when he’s given the information about their next test subject.
Wolgast accepted the envelope. Inside was a fax. He sat and read, then read it again. He was still reading when Doyle returned sipping from a straw and carrying a bag from Taco Bell.
“What is it?” Doyle said quietly. “What’s wrong?”
Wolgast shook his head. He passed the fax over.
“It’s a civilian.”
And the mental and moral brakes come on—not just for Special Agent Wolgast, but for readers. Hold on, they think. Testing biological weapons on people is not cool, but for fictional purposes, I can get my head around them doing it to death-row inmates. But a civilian? Nuh-uh. No way. What the heck are they thinking? Annnnd, they turn the page to find out.
2. Make a Character Step in the Wrong Direction
One of the best ways to hold readers’ attention is to show the character heading in the wrong direction – moving toward danger, disappointment, or dysfunction.
The infected subjects are firmly imprisoned, giving the readers a sense of safety. But the virus has enhanced their physical and mental attributes; though they can no longer speak in words, they can telepathically influence the humans around them. Many of the guards feel as if their subjects are talking to them when they clearly can’t. Take Richards, for example, who is slowly becoming obsessed with Babcock, the very first inmate who was infected.
Richards returned his attention to the monitors and picked up the earphones. Babcock was back in the corner, chattering away. It was funny: something about Babcock always gnawed at him. It was as if Richards was his, like Babcock owned a piece of him. Richards could sit and listen to the guy for hours. Sometimes he’d fall asleep at the monitors, still wearing the earphones.
He checked his watch again, knowing he shouldn’t but unable to stop himself. He adjusted the volume and settled back to listen, wondering what the sounds he heard were trying to tell him.
The readers can see what’s happening. In their heads, they’re screaming, Put the headphones down! They can’t escape on their own – don’t be the one who helps them get out! But while Richards is influenced by the infected’s thoughts, he can’t hear the readers’. So he blindly wanders down a dangerous path, taking a route that is sure to spell catastrophe. And the readers follow along to see when and exactly how it will happen.
3. Delay Justice
A good author knows that overall story conflict shouldn’t be resolved quickly. This is why it takes the course of a novel to tell the whole story. The protagonist takes two steps forward and one step back, and their good judgment is tempered with the poor choices of the people around them.
In The Passage, we’re now almost a century into the dystopian future, in a colony where less than a hundred souls have managed to soldier on. They know nothing about the Virals’ origins and so have no idea that the colonists are being telepathically influenced from beyond their walls. But the readers do. So it’s a relief when one of the leaders, who is secretly being affected, seems on the verge of getting help.
Sanjay swiveled to find Jimmy standing on the top step, his eyes pulled into a squint and his body leaning forward expectantly, the words of some unspoken declaration stalled on his lips.
“Well?” Sanjay’s mouth was suddenly dry. “What is it?”
The man opened his mouth to speak, but no words came; the effort seemed lost.
“It’s nothing,” Jimmy said finally, looking away. “Sara’s right. I really could use some sleep.”
You can almost see the readers straining forward, waiting to hear Jimmy say what’s on the tip of his tongue: that something’s wrong and he needs help. This is what they want—to know that danger for the protagonist has been averted. But that doesn’t happen here. We realize that the hero is still in danger, and rather than saving his people, Jimmy is likely to be the source of their destruction.
4. Show Impending Doom
If you can make it clear that things are about to get very, very bad for the main character, readers are very likely to be intrigued. Either their empathy for the hero or their innate rubbernecking sense of curiosity will keep them reading.
At the colony, things have been slowly going south as the power sources wear out, threatening to kill their only true source of protection against the Virals: light. The situation reaches a critical point with this compelling chapter ending.
Soo heard the voice of a runner crying from the rampart high above: “Sign, we have sign! Holy shit, they’re everywhere!”
But he spoke these words into the darkness. The lights had all gone out.
No way is any invested reader going to stop at this point.
5. Offer an Impossible Scenario
Similar to Impending Doom, this method tells readers that there is a way for the heroes to escape death and destruction, but it’s pretty much impossible.
The colonists eventually team up with another group of survivors who have been trying to restore an old diesel locomotive. As the enemy is closing in, the newcomers enlist the help of engineering-whiz Michael.
“This is a rat’s nest,” he said after a moment. “It could take me weeks to find the problem.”
“We don’t have weeks,” Billie said.
Michael lifted his face to look at them. “How long have you been working on this thing?”
“Four years,” Gus said. “Give or take.”
“So how much time do I have?”
Billie and Gus exchange a worried glance.
“About three hours,” said Billie.
We all know that high stakes are a key element for holding readers’ interest. Revealing an impossible job or deadline at the end of the chapter is a good way to establish just how tenuous the hero’s situation is.
6. Reveal That All Is Not What It Seems
In chapter 47, our enterprising engineer rises to consciousness—surprisingly, since he was sure he’d died in a recent attack. He finds himself in a gleaming compound where the people wear clean clothes, have access to medicine and good food, and have been taking care of him and his people.
Michael had resigned himself to lying in solitude, puzzling over these strange new circumstances, when at the last instant, his sister darted back to his bedside. Taking hold of Michael’s hand, she kissed him quickly on the forehead—the first time in years she had done this.
“I’m glad you’re ok,” she said. “Just focus on getting your strength back, okay? That’s what we’re all waiting for.”
Michael listened closely for her departure. Footsteps, then the sound of a heavy door, opening and closing again. He opened his hand to examine the folded slip of paper Sara had secreted there.
Tell them nothing.
Oh, shoot. We thought they were saved and had finally met some other good guys, but apparently not. The readers’ brains start churning: Just how bad is the situation? And what kind of bad is it? Keep readers guessing by painting one picture throughout the chapter, then close it with a hint that it was all window dressing.
7. Deliver a Revelation
Another good way to end a chapter is with a revelation – something huge that readers didn’t see coming. At one point in The Passage, the few surviving colonists are lamenting their situation, wondering how they can get past forty million Virals, when a new member of the party – an odd girl who seems to know things – replies that the number is off.
“So, if there aren’t forty million,” Michael ventured, “how many are there?
“Twelve,” said Amy.
At this point, the reader actually stops reading, because… What? We’ve seen firsthand the hordes of Virals that have been harassing and infecting literally everyone on the planet. When you consider the number of humans who used to live in the US alone, forty million sounds about right. But Amy is seldom wrong about the Virals. So how can there be only twelve?
Revelations like these aren’t usually shared in isolation; they tend to be followed up with more details. So dropping one at the end of a chapter will often encourage readers to keep going for more information.
8. Use Insider Information
Not all engaging chapter endings have to be doom and gloom. Some can be positive, such as when the readers discover that they’re privy to information the characters don’t have.
Peter moved to the nearest shelf, where Alicia was standing with Amy. Alicia had pulled the base of her sleeve over her wrist to wipe away a layer of dust from the side of one of the crates.
“What’s an RPG?” Peter asked.
“I have no idea,” Alicia said. She turned, smiling, to look at him. “But I think I want one.”
Oh, yes, the reader thinks. You don’t know what it is, but I do, and you definitely want one.
Everyone likes to be in the know, and readers are no exception. Revealing this kind of information to them at the end of a chapter can help propel them forward into the story.
Something else that this chapter ending provides is a sense of change. In a story with tons of impending doom and impossible situations, something positive is finally happening for the characters. It has the feel of a turning point, which readers recognize and appreciate on a subliminal level. So this kind of ending is good for keeping readers engaged on a number of levels.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of books for writers—including her latest publication: a second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus, an updated and expanded version of the original volume. Her books are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.