To be continued… What everybody misses about chapter breaks

Are you putting your chapter breaks in the best place?

What’s the purpose of a chapter break? Is it to split the book into manageable chunks? Is it to give the reader a chance to have a rest?

If that’s what you think, you’re missing the point.

Sure, the breaks make the book look like an easier read. But what you do with a chapter break is offer the reader a point to stop – and then convince them to stay longer anyway.

So how do we know where to end a chapter?

Narratively, a chapter has to feel complete, and the ending needs to shift the story on a gear. There are probably three natural ways this happens, depending on the type of novel you’re writing:

  • a cliffhanger
  • a question
  • closure.

Closure

Some manuscripts I see end too many chapters with closure. For instance, the character moves to a new town. That’s quite an old-fashioned way of writing, and worked fine in the days when everyone finished books as a point of principle. But these days, if we don’t feel a little tug of tension too, or enough curiosity about the consequences, it’s a sure opportunity for the reader to slip away. Possibly for ever.

Cliffhangers

You might think cliffhangers are the perfect solution for keeping the reader gripped.  And they’re de rigeur for certain types of genre, of course.

But some writers misjudge them. To take the expression rather literally, if you send a hero over the edge of a ravine we know very well that the chance of them splatting at the bottom is slim. The reader knows, if only subconsciously, that what awaits over the page is a rather dry sequence of physical explanations and that the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion.

Physical action is not what prose does best. Unless you can pull out a real surprise that makes a significant change (eg it’s the point where someone discovers they can fly) it’s probably not going to keep the reader addicted.

But these types of endings are focussing on the wrong outcome. Instead of ending the chapter with the question of whether the hero will survive (which is no question because they will), end it on the real moment of change – the point where they soar away on the breeze and think ‘oh my, I didn’t know I could do that’. That’s the real surprise for the character and the reader. It’s the story-changing point that’s worth grandstanding as a chapter ending.

If you’re ending on a physical cliffhanger, is there a more interesting development that comes from it? Should you move a few paragraphs on and end on the really interesting development?

(Interlude: In case you’re thinking this is an indication of the shenanigans in My Memories of A Future Life, it’s not. No one flies in that book, except with the assistance of an aeroplane. Various rules are broken in that story, but not the laws of physics. Now back to the post.)

Questions

What prose does best is emotions and questions. They’re what binds us to characters and stories – and they’re the best ways to keep your reader sitting up that little bit later. Most of your chapters won’t end on cliffhangers or closure, they’ll be lower key. But you can make sure every single one feels complete but tugs the tension tighter, answers a question but poses another.

When to put them in

I don’t split my books into chapters until very late in the editing process. I don’t think it can be done until I know the whole book inside out in its final form. Then I spend a lot of time chopping and rejigging, assessing where the natural turning points are for maximum intrigue. Sometimes I find an episode in the book is too long to be a chapter on its own, so I rework it and slip in a break half-way. All this helps maintain the pace of the story and give it irresistible pull power.

Your chapter endings are not where you give the audience a break. They are where you get them to recommit to the book.

Thank you, Dave and Leo at Mirabilis, for the picture!

My Memories of a Future Life will be available from 30 August, 2011

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  1. #1 by erikamarks on July 31, 2011 - 7:09 pm

    That last phrase is a beaut, Roz. I’m thinking of painting it on the wall above my computer, seriously. Just today I’ve been grappling with whether or not to break at several points in my draft and these reminders are wonderful. Thank you!

    • #2 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 8:05 am

      Thanks, Erika! I shuffle the endings around a lot before I find the ones that are going to have maximum impact. Not only that, they have to have the right kind of impact – especially late on in the book where the characters will be not just in one kind of trouble but several. It might be a difference of just a paragraph or two, but I have to make sure the chapter ending emphasises the right kind of turning point!

  2. #3 by Sally on July 31, 2011 - 7:32 pm

    Hi Roz! What an interesting way to work with (or should I say, without) chapters in your first draft. I must admit, I’ve taken it for granted that everyone must put chapter breaks in as they go along. I put the breaks in and readjust them if they happen not to be working (in fact I use a separate file for each chapter, so right now I have 30 files, and then some!).

    Totally agree that chapter endings must be about dangling a carrot on a stick of sorts, to make the reader want to come back for more. It’s not much different the way soap operas work!

    • #4 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 8:08 am

      Hi Sally! Actually when I first write a book I’m convinced I want to tell it as one long roll. The only break is between scenes. I have to sit down and give myself a good talking-to to get the courage to break it up. Once I do, of course, I start enjoying the process. But it’s as though there are different ways to reach out to the reader. Initially, breaking the text up feels like stepping outside too much.

      • #5 by Sally on August 1, 2011 - 10:01 am

        Would it be fair to say that scene breaks are similar to chapter breaks (in that both must egg the reader on)? That said, sometimes a chapter break can happen in the middle of a scene!

        • #6 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 10:21 am

          I was thinking about that very point as I wrote the post, but it would have got too unwieldy. And you’re right that a chapter break can happen in the middle of a scene. The ultimate tease…

  3. #7 by Matt Kelland on July 31, 2011 - 7:53 pm

    It reminds me of Sid Meier’s definition of a good game: “just one more turn and then I’ll go to bed – and next thing you know it’s five in the morning.”

    That’s what a good chapter break does – just one more chapter and then I’ll turn the light off…

    • #8 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 8:09 am

      That’s it exactly, Matt. ‘One more chapter… the souffle will keep!’

    • #9 by Bruce H. Johnson on August 1, 2011 - 7:06 pm

      Helps also (depending on the genre and media) to keep your chapters somewhat short. 3,000 words is about 10 printed pages which is 5 physical sheets. If the reader can take a quick peek and tell themselves, “Oh, it’s not that long; I can do the next chapter,” you get them emailing you with curses upon your head for keeping them up all night doing “just one more chapter…”

      • #10 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 7:29 pm

        Ah good point, Bruce. Very good point!

  4. #11 by Stacy Green on July 31, 2011 - 8:16 pm

    Hi Roz! I’ve always worked with chapters, but I’m thinking that for my next book I may try your approach. As I finished the book I’m editing now, I moved stuff around and I’ve had to do that a few times during the editing process. Making chapter notes in one big file might be a better way to go.

    And great tips for when to end the chapter. That’s something I’ve worked on the last few months.

    • #12 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 8:11 am

      Thanks, Stacy! Certainly I find the big long chunk approach allows me to immerse in the story and let it find its natural breaks. Have fun!

  5. #13 by nicolealexander1 on July 31, 2011 - 10:44 pm

    Roz, this is amazing advice and couldn’t come at a better time. Thanks! Guess I’ll be re-examining my MS next weekend!

    • #14 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 8:11 am

      Thanks, Nicole! Enjoy your rechaptering!

  6. #15 by Michael W. Perry on August 1, 2011 - 12:58 am

    “Your chapter endings are not where you give the audience a break. They are where you get them to recommit to the book.”

    That’s an almost perfect way to put it. They end a reading session wanting to pick the book up again. That’s not usually leaving the main character teetering on the edge of a cliff nor is it placing him safely in the valley below. Assuming the main character is fleeing from bad guys intent on killing him, you might see him to safety, but close with him standing on a road in the woods with a car fast approaching. It may be friends, or it may be foes. That’s enough to bring them back.

    I might add that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when many books were first serialized, it was probably more important for each issue to end in a way that pushed readers to buy the next issue. That’s one reason why books like The Moonstone are so good at keeping up your interest.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

    • #16 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 8:14 am

      Thanks, Michael. Now serialisation is a very interesting question. Not the reader putting the book down but the book putting the reader down… And it’s a question I’ve been wrangling with myself. I shall say no more for now…

  7. #17 by Michelle MacEwan on August 1, 2011 - 1:35 am

    Roz, thanks a million for this great post. You have a knack of expressing technique with great clarity. I am embroiled in the different ‘parts’ of my WIP at the moment and beginning to make sense of where things work best. I never write in chapters but leave a space where there is a natural ( to me at the time ) pause, or the story, at that point, literally runs out. You have given me some great tips to work with. And I agree with the comment above, your last point is a great one!

    • #18 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 8:18 am

      Thank you, Michelle! I guess in my quest to understand what’s going on I seek clarity myself – and then I like to talk about it! Enjoy punching up your chapters…

  8. #19 by Laura Pauling on August 1, 2011 - 2:23 am

    Managing chapter breaks is a learned skill just like everything else about writing. I agree that action without emotion is kinda boring. I don’t think I could write without chapter breaks like you do. Even though many of chapters are rearranged or the endings rewritten.

    • #20 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 8:21 am

      Laura, you always seem to have a strong sense of overall flow and structure. I remember a few posts ago you mentioned that you don’t write with back story, which is unusual. It’s always interesting to see your perspective (and indeed your posts!) Thanks for dropping by!

  9. #21 by Ileandra Young on August 1, 2011 - 7:16 am

    Hey, now I’ve always had trouble deciding where my chapters would go. This is actually a fantastic nudge to say ‘they don’t have to end the same way and they certainly they don’t have to be a certain amount of pages.’ Next piece I write, I’m not going to break it for chapters at all! Not until I’m putting together the final version… to see where they best fit.
    Thanks for this.😀

    • #22 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 8:23 am

      Thanks, Ileandra! So much of writing comes from the gut, no matter how many rules we learn. But conversely, the rules sometimes make us understand what our gut is trying to tell us, when it nags and says ‘don’t do this, do that….’

  10. #23 by Barry Dashwood on August 1, 2011 - 11:57 am

    Hi Roz.
    I find that I start another chapter when the POV changes. Occasionally a very long chapter ensues, so then I have to find a natural breaking point to slip an extra heading in just to break up the excessive length. I’ve never thought about it from an analysis point of view though.
    Ah well, back to the ………..

    • #24 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 12:29 pm

      Hi Barry – yes, of course a POV shift is a natural reason to end a chapter. Good point!

  11. #25 by Terry Odell on August 1, 2011 - 2:37 pm

    My first manuscript had no chapter breaks. I then added them, but almost every one had the character either driving away or going to sleep. Not good. Your last sentence drives it home. If the reader will put down the book because it’s a good stopping place, then you’ve missed the mark.

    • #26 by rozmorris on August 1, 2011 - 7:30 pm

      Terry, I can well understand making that mistake! It’s only when we start thinking of chapter ends as another kind of hook that we use them well.

  12. #27 by Stella Deleuze on August 2, 2011 - 9:28 am

    Hi, Roz

    How interesting. Never even thought about writing a book without chapters when I wanted to have chapters. In my romantic comedy, I do have a chapters and each consists of two POVS. I have to plan meticoulisly to get it right.

    My literary fiction novel doens’t have chapters, though and will not get any🙂

    • #28 by rozmorris on August 2, 2011 - 2:29 pm

      Hi Stella, migrating from Facebook! No chapters at all… interesting choice. That’s not a judgement, BTW – the proof of the pudding is the eating, as you know.
      But as for writing without chapters first: I love playing around informally with a book until quite late on – it helps me understand the structure in greater depth. Then I zone in on the nitty gritty details. Not so much for my ghosted books, which are quite straightforward, but definitely for my own projects.

  13. #29 by SD Writer on August 2, 2011 - 6:36 pm

    Recommend reading Elizabeth Daly — she wrote murder mysteries back in the day. The books are a delight (how can they not be when everyone stops for cocktails). And she’s utterly brilliant at chapter breaks.

    • #30 by rozmorris on August 2, 2011 - 8:06 pm

      Cocktails – how very civilised, as you say! Thanks, Shannon, for adding a bit of dash to my blog.

  14. #31 by Sonia G Medeiros on August 4, 2011 - 2:43 am

    I’m thinking of breaking my book into chapters based on scenes. So far, I’m working so that each scene ends on a bit of a change or question. Something that makes the reader want to go onto the next scene. I might group the scenes into longer chapters though. Haven’t decided.

    • #32 by rozmorris on August 4, 2011 - 6:54 am

      Hi Sonia! It’s tricky, as we already try to make scenes end as tantalisingly as possible. I always think chapters seem a little more major, although sometimes one scene deserves a chapter of its own.

  15. #33 by Elizabeth on August 8, 2011 - 2:20 pm

    Thank you for your insight into how you form your chapters. I’ve had to rework my book based on existing chapters, not the other way around. I had a list of information I needed to put in my memoir that turned out to be a fiction, based on a true story simply because it read like a diary. I hated it like that with all that whining and self-pity so I had to rework the whole 400 page book and chop it up like my car insurance payments. Thanks again, ZaLee Raven

    • #34 by rozmorris on August 8, 2011 - 2:26 pm

      Goodness, what a task – glad you found my post helpful! Hope the memoir is working out well!

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