When Should You End a Chapter?
Chapters are defined as much by when they end as when they start, but knowing when to end one is not always understood. It’s one of those things that you sort of just feel, but that’s terrible advice to give to someone.
One of the easiest ways to figure out how to end chapters is to read. You need to read a variety of authors in different genres so you can get a good idea of places and techniques to end chapters. You should be reading a broad range of books anyway, but pay close to attention to when you reach the end a chapter and ask yourself why the author chose to stop at that moment. The placement of chapter breaks are—more often than not—very carefully thought out, either during the writing or editing of a novel. Authors choose where to end their chapters and you need to figure out why.
Generally speaking, you want to end a chapter in a way that encourages the reader to move onto the next one. You do that by setting up something akin to a minor cliff-hanger. You don’t want a big gasp-worthy shock at the end of each chapter—your readers will become desensitised to being shocked—but you do want something to move the plot forward. Your next chapter is about resolving what you set up and then presenting something else.
As an example, your first chapter could open the book with a murder. The detectives are going to be starting their investigation. That is the end of Chapter One, which leads nicely into the next: the beginning of the investigation. The detectives discover that the gun used was one that was owned by the victim’s neighbour. End of Chapter Two. They go to the neighbour but they find them dead. End of Chapter Three. The ballistics report comes back and both victims were killed with the same gun. End of Chapter Four. Now there are two murders to investigate.
That is certainly not the only way you could break that story up, but it’s a good demonstration that chapters should be following the same rules as storytelling. The characters’ actions and decisions impact the next thing that happens. The following chapter is a reaction to the current chapter, which is a reaction to the previous chapter; in the same way, your story is a series of reactions to what has come before.
That being said, chapter breaks are not that big of a concern when you’re writing the book. The content is the important part, so feel free to break up your chapters however you like. When you go back and edit—and you’ll want to be doing a couple of different rounds of editing—make sure that one of those is to take a look at your chapters. Does each chapter flow into the next? Does one seem like it has ended very abruptly? Is one very bland, where nothing seems to be resolved or set up? Is one not even remotely connected to anything that has happened before and instead just you trying to move the plot forward because your characters didn’t? If the answer to any of these is yes then you need to fix that chapter.
Chapter breaks provide an opportunity for the reader to put the book down and come back to it. Successful chapter breaks will face the reader with a dilemma: stop reading, or just one more chapter? With good storytelling, a good chapter break leads to the next.
© 2018 Davina Chime
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Davina Chime is a Thanet-born hopeless romantic.