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When writing a novel, when should I end a chapter?

Note that I'm not talking about chapter word-count (that topic was discussed here). I'm interested to know when should I end my chapters conceptually.

Is there a rule of thumb? Examples will be appreciated.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Follow the standard plot arc: conflict, rising action, and resolution. This is often used to describe plots across a whole novel, but it is equally applicable to a single scene. Each scene needs a conflict of some kind, and the action in that scene will flow from this conflict. When the conflict is resolved (temporarily or permanently), the scene is over.

There is often only a single scene per chapter, but you might put several scenes in the same chapter if they are closely related, or if they illustrate some larger arc of conflict and resolution.

Alternately, some authors choose to end a chapter right before the resolution. When done well, this can add suspense and keep the reader flipping pages.

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In a recent Writing Excuses podcast, Mary Robinette Kowal suggests that chapters are about pacing. This resonated with me (and with Howard Tayler, as you'll hear in the podcast).

When I think about pacing, I think about answering the reader's questions and provoking new questions. There are various levels of story question (beat, scene, chapter) depending on the significance of the question to the overall story goal.

So a good place to end a chapter is with an event that creates a significant shift in the reader's questions. This doesn't mean cliffhangers, necessarily, but some significant shift.

Here are some ways to shift the reader's questions:

  • Raise a new question. Introduce a new puzzle or mystery. Introduce a new character with conflicting goals. Create a conflict with an ally.
  • Answer a question in a way that raises a new question. Reveal information. Show that the problem is more complex that was apparent. Eliminate, undermine, or thwart the MC's most promising option.
  • Increase the significance of a question that's already on the reader's mind. Raise the stakes. Shorten the deadline.
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Another important aspect is to make sure that your chapters are of relatively the same length. Just a tip, but it sucks when you have a chapter like 30 pages long, then another like 60 pages long. "If your chapters are inconsistent, your readers gunna have a bad time."

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I've seen writers (Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams) with one-sentence chapters, for comic effect. –  Phil Perry Mar 3 at 18:22
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The last line or lines should have some reason for being there. They can:

  • be suspenseful ("What are you doing here?")
  • be funny ("Tinkerty-tonk," I said, and I meant it to sting.)
  • close a scene (She slammed the door behind her, hard enough to make the glass rattle in the windowpanes.)
  • bring resolution to an arc of any size (He held John's eyes for a long moment, then leaned over and kissed him full on the mouth.)

but don't end mid-thought or mid-scene arbitrarily.

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+1 for examples –  JYelton Feb 28 '11 at 22:07
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I would say at the point where you estimate your reader will get to the full stop, curse your name, curse your family's name, swear under their breath and, wearily ignoring the clock telling them they have to be up in four and a half hours for work, mumble: "Go on then, just one more chapter." before looking across to the beginning of the next chapter.

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