Better Writing – How to Start and End Chapters
We use chapters as a way of neatly sectioning the writing into manageable portions for both the reader and the writer. Chapters have many functions, but understanding them and knowing how to use them effectively is an important aspect to getting the most out of your chapters.
Chapters are useful in different ways. They can help build tension, create mood and atmosphere, and they can allow the narrative to breathe by slowing down the pace of the story or causing a short pause. This is effective if the writer wants to move from lots of action and shift to a slower pace to give the reader time to digest everything that is happening. Readers need the chance to take in everything that is happening without rushing along at breakneck speed.
Chapters are also effective for shifting perspectives and for changing POVs. They also allow the transition of time and are great for introducing flashbacks. And of course, they allow the writer to move scenes and settings without interrupting the narrative.
So with the different ways writers can use chapters, they can be used efficiently. Think of each chapter the same way as the very beginning of the novel – you have to intrigue, tease and lure the reader into continuing reading. And keep them reading.
Every chapter should act as a hook to keep the reader reeled in.
Beginning of Chapters
The beginning of a chapter should not differ too much to your opening paragraph to Chapter One. In other words, it should entice the reader and lead them smoothly and seamlessly into the continuing story without them even noticing the chapter break. They just want to turn the page and read on.
Beginnings should lead on from the previous chapter in a logical manner – it’s a continuation of the story, after all. The exceptions are that if you want a discernible or deliberate shift in the time span – i.e. the transition of days, months or years or you want to use a flashback.
The other thing to remember is that the proceeding chapter should resolve story threads from the preceding chapter, or at least continue with them. That’s the purpose of a story arc.
You don’t have to start every chapter with a bang or an explosive action scene. But it should start with a hint of what’s gone before, as a reference. It should also have momentum and it should have enough in the opening paragraphs to keep the reader enticed.
Ending of Chapters
The ending of chapter is also a great opportunity to lure the reader. Writers use them to not only build some tension, but also to entice the reader to find out what might happen next.
Read any novel and you’ll see how writers approach this.
Often writers create a sense of mystery and ambiguity at the end of a chapter to ensure that it entices the reader to keep reading, for example:
John’s expression creased, perhaps because he knew he would break her trust. ‘There’s something I have to tell you…something about me…’
This is another way to dangle the carrot for your reader at the end of a chapter. Mini foreshadowing is a way of hinting at a revelation or a future event that might occur in further into the story. It’s the same principle of normal foreshadowing in any novel – the idea is to scatter the narrative with hints of what may come, so ending your chapter with a mini-foreshadow is a good way to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, for example:
‘Don’t be too late.’
Julie grabbed her bag and coat and kissed her mother on the cheek. ‘Stop worrying, mom, I’ll be fine...’
Or you can use narrative to foreshadow, for example:
Joe stared into his whiskey glass. He knew it was only a matter of time. There was no escaping what he had done.
Writers like to escalate their chapters to end on a cliffhanger, which ensures the reader will want to turn the page to find out what happens next. After all, that’s what a cliffhanger does; it leaves the reader ‘hanging’ and anxious to find out what happens in the very next instant.
Again, you don’t have to have huge explosions and lots of action to create a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger can be very subtle; it’s the ‘not knowing’ element of what comes next that makes it effective, for example:
Billy scrambled in the snow for his gun, just as the soldier pulled back the bolt on his rifle.
The sound of the bullet echoed loud across the snowy vista, before the silence fell once more.
The story halts abruptly, leaving the reader wondering whether Billy is alive or dead, so they are lured into keep reading. It’s a typical cliffhanger.
Generally, use chapter endings to enhance tension or conflict or reveal something new about the plot or a character (or their immediate situation). Use them to lure, to intrigue or hint and things to come.
Another way to look at it is to use the ending of important chapters to promise answers to story and character questions in the preceding chapters. You don’t have to address all of them, but some elements will unfold, and so it keeps the story arc going. It’s a fundamental way to keep the reader interested.
It’s worth noting that not every chapter has to end with a tease and start with a hook. As with all writing, it’s all about balance. Those chapters that do have key events, important turning points, plot revelations or important scene changes and so on are the ones to focus on.
Where necessary, use anticipation, tension, fear and emotion to keep your reader glued to the story. Think carefully about the start and the end of your chapters, think about what effect you want to achieve and what you want to convey.
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