If you are writing a novel for the first time, you’ll need to know when and how to end a chapter. Learn about chapter breaks and see examples of some from popular novels in the following excerpt from the book Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb.
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.
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There is one ending that I have been anticipating all year. The series finale of LOST.
I remember the pilot episode (which is airing on Saturday night on ABC). I fell in love with mysteries of the island. I’m a plot chick so that hooked me first. Then I got caught up with the characters and their stories. It was the best of both worlds — mythology and motivations all lumped into one package.
Although LOST has been known to confuse and frustrate some of its viewers, I think most of them will watch the final episode because if anything, everyone wants to know: How Will It End?
I have some theories but in the end it will be the LOST writers who decide. I’m sure that it won’t satisfy certain segments of the viewing audience but that’s the chance writers take with their work. You’ll always have a different view from the readers.
I started to think about endings. Are all endings subjective? What makes a good ending? Even though LOST is a TV show, it still has a lot of aspects of novel writing.
For me, a good ending ties up loose ends. It gives me a sense that the characters have come to terms with the story question presented in the beginning. It also lets me get a tiny peek into what’s in store for their future — will they happy or sad?
Those are just a few things that I like to see in endings. I don’t like abrupt endings — although some people do — but they are more open-ended than what I really like.
So for those of you who watch LOST, we will all know the answer to how it all ends around 11:31 pm on Sunday night.
Have a great weekend everyone! Hope that you are getting some writing done and moving ahead in your novel projects.
In learning how to end your novel with a punch, it’s important to know what you can and can’t do to write success novel endings that attract agents, publishers and, most important, readers. Here are the dos and don’ts of writing a strong closer.
Don’t introduce any new characters or subplots. Any appearances within the last 50 pages should have been foreshadowed earlier, even if mysteriously.
Don’t describe, muse, explain or philosophize. Keep description to a minimum, but maximize action and conflict. You have placed all your charges. Now, light the fuse and run.
Do create that sense of Oh, wow! Your best novelties and biggest surprises should go here. Readers love it when some early, trivial detail plays a part in the finale. One or more of those things need to show up here as decisive elements.
Do enmesh your reader deeply in the outcome. Get her so involved that she cannot put down your novel to go to bed, to work or even to the bathroom until she sees how it turns out.
DO Resolve the central conflict. You don’t have to provide a happily-ever-after ending, but do try to uplift. Readers want to be uplifted, and editors try to give readers what they want.
Do Afford redemption to your heroic character. No matter how many mistakes she has made along the way, allow the reader—and the character—to realize that, in the end, she has done the right thing.
Do Tie up loose ends of significance. Every question you planted in a reader’s mind should be addressed, even if the answer is to say that a character will address that issue later, after the book ends.
Do Mirror your final words to events in your opener. When you begin a journey of writing a novel, already having established a destination, it’s much easier to make calculated detours, twists and turns in your storytelling tactics. When you reach the ending, go back to ensure some element in each of your complications will point to it. It’s the tie-back tactic. You don’t have to telegraph the finish. Merely create a feeling that the final words hearken to an earlier moment in the story.
Don’t change voice, tone or attitude. An ending will feel tacked on if the voice of the narrator suddenly sounds alien to the voice that’s been consistent for the previous 80,000 words.
Don’t resort to gimmicks. No quirky twists or trick endings. You’re at the end of your story, and if your reader has stuck with you the whole time, it’s because you’ve engaged her, because she has participated. The final impression you want to create is a positive one. Don’t leave your reader feeling tricked or cheated.
Nervous that your novel is missing elements that would make it appealing to agents and publishers? Consider:
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I’ve been tweaking my novel ending (again) and wondering just how much I should wrap up. Should I leave any loose ends? Anything for a reader to ponder about later?
I read a recent post by author Sarah Ockler about novel endings:
“I like happy endings. I like to know that things worked out for my favorite fictional people just as I want things to work out for my favorite real life people.
But real life isn’t like that, is it? We don’t always get to know how things turn out for everyone we’ve ever loved. We don’t always get the final say. We don’t always get any say, because unfortunately, endings are just that — endings. And they’re often abrupt and unpredictable.”
I have two particular characters where at the novel’s end, you know where they’re going but they don’t necessarily have all their “issues” worked out — especially between each other. I’ve been wondering if I should try to solve them all before the end, but now I don’t think it’s necessary. In fact, it may feel too “forced” at the end to have their issues resolved. Wrapped up a little too tight and neat.
But there should also be a balance too. For example, you don’t want your major story question going unanswered or a major plot point never being addressed. It almost like needing to trust your writer’s instinct of how much to leave open and what to close.
As a writer, do you feel that you must resolve EVERYTHING or leave a little open for the reader to come to her own conclusion?
As a reader, what are some that things that really frustrate you about novel endings? For me, it’s cliffhanger endings. Ugh. Ha, ha.
Would love to hear some opinions! :)