We all have a rough idea of where we want our chapters or scenes to end, but the difficulty often comes in determining how to end them. Do I reveal something? Resolve the conflict and cut?
The way you end your chapter is super important. It’s the last words in an argument, a promise of what’s to come, a gift of satisfaction to the reader—in other words, how you end your chapter will convince the reader of whether or not they want to continue reading.
How do we do this, then?
The way we drop the curtain on our chapters should serve one of five purposes:
- to end on the highest/lowest emotional note for that scene,
- to introduce a mystery or complication,
- to promise the events to come,
- to allow readers a moment to absorb what they just experienced, or
- to emphasize a particular reveal.
Before we get into specific techniques, let’s talk about the concept of IN LATE, OUT EARLY. This is a concept frequently talked about on the podcast series Writing Excuses, but in case you’re not a fellow listener, here’s a quick recap. “In late, out early” refers to the idea that you want to jump into a scene or story line after the ball first starts rolling, right into the action. Not necessarily in the middle of the climax, but when major things start to change. In Hunger Games, we open on the day of The Reaping, not a few weeks before to get an “establishing shot.” You want readers to be asking questions right from the start (“Who’s that? What’s this mean? How does that work?”) so you can begin answering them in strategic order. Then, you want to get out early, meaning you leave the scene before emotions have entirely cooled, before people leave the room, while blood still drips from the sword. No, you don’t have to cut to a new time and setting, but you need to keep things moving. By doing this, you build off of the tension and progress from the last scene into the next one (learn more about this concept in my post about transitions).
There are many different techniques to use on the final page of your chapter, but today I’m only going to highlight three of them: cliff hangers, zooming out, and bookends.
1. CLIFF HANGERS
This one is probably one of the most effective and misused forms of chapter endings. A cliff hanger is when you end a chapter immediately after something drastically changes or is unexpectedly introduced. It gets the reader so curious or concerned, they have to read the next chapter to find out what happens next. It’s a very powerful tool, but with great power comes great responsibility (cue Spiderman swinging off a cliff—no, hanging off a cliff). If you use this too often, you’ll frustrate or annoy your readers.
There are two kinds of cliff hangers: the exciting hangs and establishing hangs.
Exciting cliff hangers are the ones where we open the curious box and all the world’s evil escapes, or when we hear a knock at the door and discover our long-lost lover is waiting outside. The game changes in a big way, and we’re left wondering what’s going to happen next.
Establishing cliff hangers allow the characters to finalize their plans (often in secret from the reader) before preparing to execute the next step. Kind of like a “ready . . . break!” You’ve read them before. When the hero has the final piece, knows where he’s going, and is confident he can get there. A great example is the end of the chapter “The Council of Elrond’ from The Fellowship of the Ring. The last page reads:
The hero knows what he needs to do (go to Mordor, destroy the ring), has at least one friend to go with him, and now they will start their journey. There’s something satisfactory about having all your ducks in a row and ending with steely determination, even if you’re not confident they can succeed.
2. ZOOMING OUT
This technique is all about reflection and emotional impact. It’s often one line, placed after the resolution of a scene. Zooming out is when you take the narrative scope and expand it from beyond the characters and their conflict out into the world at large, like a camera lens taking a wide shot of the scenery. It’s great to use in the middle of a scene too for adjusting your pacing, but at the end of a chapter, with blank space and a chapter title between you and the next part of the story, really allows a reader to soak in what just happened.
After a heated argument where an angry husband storms out, you zoom out on the wife huddled in corner, crying, with the closing sentence, “Outside, it started to rain.” We zoom out from a very intense, close-up view of her feelings into the gloom at large in the world. Another example. After a battle—or maybe an exciting promotion—we zoom out and mention a woman dancing in the governor’s hall. Depending on what type of emotion this zoom follows, it could provoke a sense of irony or celebration. Leave it to the reader to see how the two connect.
Here’s an example from a book I’m reading. A kept woman in court fears the oncoming rebellion will turn her out of a home. She steals some jewels from her master and this is how the chapter ends:
This is a wonderful example of zooming out. We follow her to the cherry tree where she buries her jewels, then zoom out to comment on the tree itself, which parallels this character’s self-image as a courtesan and her sense of urgency to find a new means of income. It’s emotional, reflective, and ends the chapter on a powerful image.
The bookend technique is most often used at the beginning and end of a book, to encompass a character’s development or change of circumstance, however they work really well on the smaller chapter level. But what’s a bookend, you ask? A bookend is a technique where you start a scene or story with a certain sequence of events the character experiences, then at the end of the story/scene you put them in a similar situation, highlighting how they react differently according to the growth they’ve undergone.
To use another Lord of the Rings example, from the movies this time, the trilogy starts off
showing Frodo and his friends dancing and having a great time at Bilbo’s party, then again at the Prancing Pony. The trilogy ends with the four of them sitting quietly at a pub, drinking and not saying much. This encapsulates the journey they’ve gone on and how they’ve all been changed because of it.
On a chapter level, bookending your scenes is a great way to highlight how the events in the chapter has changed the world or your characters. Start a chapter with a husband and wife driving out to dinner, joking and happy. They fight during the dinner, and you end the chapter with them driving home, both sullen and quiet. A subtler way to do this would be to open the chapter with your protagonist complaining about how he doesn’t want to give money to a charity event. After the chapter’s main conflict, the chapter can end with the same man giving some change to a homeless person. Both talk about charity without directly mirroring the circumstance.
There you have it! What are some ways you like to end chapters? Do you think any of these techniques work better than others? Have any others to share? Let us know in the comments!