The End of a Chapter

After my last post, Freak of Nature asked how long a chapter should be and how many chapters a book should have. I wrote back that a book can have any number of chapters, and each one can be almost any length. But I’ve been thinking that there’s more to say on the subject.

As a child I was a major reader, the kind who reads while brushing her teeth. I read anything, no matter how long or short. But after I became a writer I became less of a reader – much less, for a bunch of reasons, like editing as I read and reading books I didn’t like to keep up with children’s lit. Lately I’ve been getting back to pleasure reading, but it’s still not the same as when I was a bookworm.

The result, I think, is that I’m now a reluctant reader. I won’t pick up a long book unless it’s by an author I love or unless someone I trust has sworn it’s a great book. I always check the number of pages before I start reading, and I recheck occasionally as I go along. I look ahead to see how many pages are left in the chapter I’m reading too, and I’m disheartened if the chapter ending is a long way off, even if I’m enjoying the book. I like to see a break coming up.

When I get to the break I’m likely to continue reading if the chapter ends on an exciting note, or if I know an important moment is approaching. But I’m happy for that little breather.

No editor has ever said a word to me about the length of my chapters, maybe because before I send a manuscript in I even the chapters out, a bit. Or maybe editors don’t care. Any editors reading this and care to weigh in?

Ever is an exception to my evening out. In Ever, the chapters pass back and forth between two first-person narrators, chapter length determined by whose perspective predominates at a particular moment. As a result, Ever is my book with both the longest and shortest chapters. For example, while Kezi is in the underworld, Olus, the other POV character has little to do, so his chapters are short and hers long.

But for most of my books, when I’ve finish a few drafts and before my editor sees a word, I page through. If a chapter is shorter than five pages or longer than thirteen, I adjust it. This is just me; I suspect many writers don’t think about chapter length, and I don’t believe book quality is affected. Anybody want to give an opinion?

The fix for a too short chapter isn’t as simple as gluing two chapters together, and the cure for a long one isn’t a quick chop down the middle. There is the very important matter of chapter endings.

A good chapter ending makes the reader want to – have to – keep reading. More than anywhere else in a book, the chapter ending has to compel or invite the reader forward, because that page turn is such an invitation to turn off the flashlight under the covers or to answer all those text messages that have been piling up.

There is one fundamental principle for chapter endings: something should always be amiss. If one problem has been solved, another should rise from the horizon or come forward from the background. (Time out. I stated the above as an absolute, but there are no absolutes. Probably someone somewhere has written an exciting book in which nothing goes wrong. Maybe you have.)

How to achieve those irresistible final lines? I’ve gone through my not-yet-published Fairies and the Quest for Never Land for ways:

A cliff-hanger. A chapter in Fairies ends with my main character, Gwendolyn, falling out of the sky toward a circle of sharks with their mouths open.

But it may be impossible to orchestrate a crisis every seven or so pages. There are other techniques:

A quiet chapter ending. This works only if big trouble is looming. For example, if your main character expects to be humiliated in school the next day, you can end the preceding chapter with her falling asleep after some tossing and turning.

Worry. If your main character, whom the reader cares about, is worried, the reader will worry too. In Fairies, the second chapter ends with Gwendolyn worrying that Peter Pan will forget to come for her. The worries of a secondary sympathetic character also will do. In Fairies, I ended nine out of thirty-two chapters with a worry.

The villain plotting or doing something awful, which is unbeknownst to your main character. Be careful, though. This is possible to show only from an omniscient third-person POV.

The beginning of a major moment. Peter does come for Gwendolyn. I end his arrival chapter at the moment before the two meet.

A single powerful word. Chapter Eight of Fairies ends “Then a new miracle began.” Miracle is the magic word. Of course what follows has to live up to the promise, in this case has to be a miracle, even if a minor one.

An emotional moment. Suppose your main character has just unwittingly insulted a friend. The chapter can end when he’s realized what he’s done, even before the friend has reacted – especially before the friend reacts – because anticipation is a crucial factor in chapter endings.

A surprise. The readers’ suspicions are lulled. Things have been going pretty well. Someone shrieks. End of chapter.

A threat. You can imagine how this would work.

The absolute worst happens. End the chapter. But the absolute worst can’t happen many times in a single book. You can get away with a few absolute worsts, but probably not many, unless you’re writing comedy.

I’m sure there are more terrific ways to end a chapter, and you’ll find ones that particularly suit your book. Be on the lookout for them as you write. Try going through your manuscript-in-progress to check out the endings you already have. See if you can ratchet them up a notch or two if they need it. Save the results, and have fun!

  1. You're right on regarding chapter length from a reader's perspective. Long chapters, even in a book I'm loving, make me oddly impatient. It's like being locked in an 88-degree room with your favorite author — no matter how great the conversation, every now and then you've just got to open the window for a moment.

  2. The Awakening by Kate Chopin was a difficult read for me because all of the chapters are only three or four pages, sometimes less! I think there has to be a balance, not too long, not too short.

  3. Good to know that you don't worry about the chapter length too much until you go through and do self-editing. That's what I keep thinking I'll do, but it was making me nervous that some chapters were twice as long as others. Now I can quit being nervous and just write!

    If it didn't mean I would have too many files, I think I would find it easier to just write in scenes and then put them together as chapters after I'm done shuffling them around.

    Do you write in MS Word or do you have some other software you like? I've heard there's a great one for the Mac, but I'm on a PC.

  4. I'm glad you pointed out that you have gotten more impatient. When I was a kid, I used to dive into books, regardless of their length. But yes, now one of those door-stopper novels is kind of a turn-off for me too. My chapters usually pan out to around the same number of words. I'm thinking of changing that, though, because I tend to rush things if I hit the magic number just so I can end the chapter–or conversely, drag things out when they don't need to be.

  5. I found the odd length of the chapters in Ever very distracting . . and the switching POV made it even worse. I'm not trying to be a critic . . I love all your other books. You did a great job with them.
    I love long books. Less than three-hundred and might as well have handed me a picture book. lol.
    I don't mind long chapters, but I do hate pages with more than 500 words each. I like to feel like I'm getting somewhere. So long as I'm turning pages, I do.

  6. I don't tend to mind chapter lengths, as long as they are even within a book. But I do tend to regulate my own chapter lengths – I seem to not be able to write a chapter longer than 5,000 words. And keeping around that word count helps me – I know what I need to have happen in the chapter, and having a rough word limit forces me to avoid rambling on.

    That said, I don't change points of view very often, so I've never experienced anything like what you described for Ever.

  7. HI Gail
    I love writing little stories and being creative, I
    enjoy that part of school[english]. But so far I am
    getting my worse mark in english. How do I improve?

  8. Gail,
    You mentioned that worse-case-scenarios should be used sparingly to end a chapter. On the same vein, what about false deaths? I'm re-writing a Grimm tale (Maid Maleen) where the main character and her best friend are thought dead for an entire year. Does this mean that I can't employ a false death anywhere else?
    -Leah B.

  9. Jamtoday–I can't tell if you're overusing the false deaths. You may be doing it exactly right. And I don't mean that you can place a false death or any important moment only at the end of a chapter. You should put such moments where they fit best. If they fall at a good chapter-ending point, so much the better. If not, that's okay too.

  10. Awesome post. I feel like getting the right ending for the chapter also spurs me along to write more. I'm doing NaNo right now and since I don't exactly have a complete plot outline, I'm being motivated by feelings and ideas at each chapter's ending. It's so hard not editing!!

  11. Well, I find most of my chapters are 4-5000 words (one or two stop around 3k, and occasionally one stretches out to 6k if there's a lot happening). It wasn't particularly intentional, but that's where I've ended up.

    I started off writing plays, so I have a pretty strong tendency to put chapter divides where the scene changes happen; they may move in editing.

    P.S. Wandered over from your NaNo pep talk – thanks for the 'rules', especially remembering to eat… 🙂 Speaking of NaNo… *runs*

  12. Thank you so much for both the NaNoWriMo pep talk and this post! Both are extremely helpful. You were one of my favorite authors in elementary and middle school (I just adored "Ella Enchanted" and "The Two Princesses of Bamarre") so I was thrilled to see to see your WriMo-wide email in my inbox. I'll definitely be reading your blog on a regular basis; you have a lot of helpful information.

    Also, I was wondering what you thought about the amount of detail in stories. For example, I can have an awful time describing the scenary and what characters look like, and therefore I use an terribly low amount of detail when I'm writing, but the book I'm writing is in first-person and the heroine is far from eloquent, so would that be okay to get away with? Or should I just insert more detail and practice on getting to the point where using detail is much more of a subconscious act? Or is it up to the author, and either extreme is acceptable as long as it is well written?

  13. Thank you thank you for this post. It got me thinking in a good way.
    I can't wait to check our your work…..Mary Kennedy Eastham, Author, The Shadow of a Dog I Can't forget and the upcoming novel Night Surfing

  14. I came here after reading your NaNoWriMo pep talk -Thanks!

    An obsessive reader since I was a child, I don't notice chapter breaks. I mean, at all. In a biology textbook, maybe, but not in fiction. My husband, who is also a reader but a much slower one, will tell me I can finish off my chapter before turning out the light, or dinner, or leaving the house. Does no good. The down side is authors who put those fancy little quotes at chapter headings, as my brain on auto pilot often misses them, and has to flip back.

  15. Gail,

    I also wanted to say thank you for the NaNoWriMo pep talk! I really enjoy those when I get them because I have already hit that point where I'm not too sure where to go with my story. But when I read your pep talk, it got me re-energized to get writing again.

    Do you have any tips on self-editing? Like where to begin? Or a process I should follow? Thanks again and I'll be following your blog! I hope one day, I can be as successful an author as you are!


  16. What a fantastic article. Normally I pass on most "…on writing…" blogs after reading a post or two simply because I see the discussion of writing as a major procrastination device, but I had fun here.
    In fact, your article was juicy. I found myself on fertile creative ground and found an ending for the chapter I'm working on.
    You, m'lady, have been bookmarked! Thanks for keeping a good blog!

  17. My two favorite lines in this post were:
    "As a child I was a major reader, the kind who reads while brushing her teeth" and
    "But it may be impossible to orchestrate a crisis every seven or so pages"

    I smiled all through the post. My daughter and I both loved Ella Enchanted.

    I followed you to your blog this morning after reading your NaNo pep talk. Thank you so much for the bird's eye view.Now I have to get back to work because I'm sadly behind schedule.
    But as Arnold said….I'll be back.
    Karen :0)

  18. Dear Gail,
    currently, I only write for Fan, and I would like to know: What do you do when you are stuck on an idea? Like you just need to speed things along, and you have ideas for other sections of your story, but you can't get there yet? Could you help? My reviewers and I would greatly appreciate it. Please?
    Grace, the fan fiction-er.

  19. Hi Gail
    I want to write a story, but don't know where to begin.
    You have probably been asked this before, I forget where you answered it, but how do you start a book? Or how do you come up with the stories theme. Sorry if this is a repeated question. There is a lot of comments and i don't know if i can read through them.

  20. Maggie–I'll write a post on editing oneself next week. Thanks for the question.
    Grace–My two posts on time may be helpful. Please check them out and write again if you have follow-up questions.
    Lizzy–My book WRITING MAGIC may help you more than a post could. One of its purposes is to help people get started.

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