Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leading Readers to Turn the Page

How important are chapter endings? Really, really, really, really important. As I work through my first round of revision on my YA, the round where I focus on plot, I pay particular attention to how I end each chapter. My goal is to make the reader want to -- scratch that -- need to -- turn the page.

Not every chapter ending needs a traditional cliffhanger (but having a few of those helps). But every chapter needs tension, and every chapter ending should somehow deepen the tension. A chapter could end with a character experiencing true love for the first time, but the reader knows from prior chapters that the love will be short-lived. Or a character could make a decision and accept that it will lead her into grave danger. If the reader is hooked, the page is turned.

So, as I write, and I look for ways to keep that forward momentum, I keep in mind the big "what if?" When I get to the end of the chapter, I ask, what if she slams the door in his face instead of inviting him in? What if he sucker punches him instead of shaking his hand? What if the dog drags a body part out of the woods (gruesome, I know) rather than hovering by his master's side?

I may not change the action of the scene, but by shaking up my initial impulse, I come up with chapter endings that ratchet up the tension. Sometimes these new directions lead me to completely rewrite the scene, or add another plot line, or introduce another character. That's all good. That's revision. And I love revision.


  1. I'm paying more attention to my chapter endings. And it really doesn't take much to make them hookier.

  2. I agree that not every chapter needs a traditional cliffhanger, though it's tempting for me to go that route because it can be such an easy hook.

    But, ever since I subbed to an agent who says he doesn't generally go for the cliffhanger style, I've used them more sparingly.

  3. Such a good point! I just finished Mockingjay and even though I wasn't thrilled with the way the story went I had to finish because I needed to know what happened to Katniss and who she ended up with. So yeah, endings are huge.

  4. For me, chapter endings don't necessarily have to be cliffhangers, but I need to be wondering about something that I don't have the answers for yet.

  5. Medeia:
    You're right. Sometimes all it takes is a small change to make a chapter ending more exciting, more compelling.

    I agree with using the cliffhanger sparingly. The best example of "all cliff-hanger all the time" is the DaVinci Code. And tension reserves solely for chapter endings doesn't work for me.

    Suzanne Collin did an amazing job building tension to last through three novels. And yeah, I had to know who Katniss would end up with, too.

    That's a great way to put it. You have to keep wondering about what will happen next. What better way to get readers to turn the page.

  6. J.A. Whatever it is you've decided to do with your chapter endings, it's working. Your last submission to the group was right on target! I can't wait to read more.

  7. J.A.
    Your changes to the ends of your first two chapters are excellent! I think Andrea described them perfectly. They don't seem like forced cliffhangers, they just give the reader a small jolt and something to think about.

  8. An even bigger problem is getting to the cliff. Dragging that wagon includes lashing the horses and being sure that no one falls out. This is otherwise known as the chapter arc, and you did a great job in your revision.

  9. Thanks so much, Meg, Gale and Linda. I just hope I can keep it up through the dreaded middle!

  10. I like cliffhanger chapter endings, but don't consider them a must all the time. I think they can come across as manipulative if we think they "have" to be there. If there are questions that need to be answered, I'm still compelled to turn the page.