There’s a theory that runs that to keep a reader reading every chapter needs to end on a cliff-hanger. Now, I’ve already said this isn’t strictly true because when most people think of cliff-hangers they think of moments of high drama, metaphorically hanging off a cliff. However, a cliff-hanger doesn’t have to be high drama it can be a simple question that keeps the reader reading and this question can be ongoing rather than posed at the end of every chapter. The problem with the cliff-hanger theory is that first assumption that a cliff-hanger should be dramatic followed by the fact that this dramatic chapter ending doesn’t fit the ending of every chapter in every novel.

Rather than say we need a cliff-hanger perhaps we should pose it as ‘a reason to keep reading’. A reason to keep reading could be ‘I liked that interplay, what are they going to do next?’ or ‘Well, that’ll come back to bite them, I wonder how’ or ‘I really like this character let’s see how they get on’. Just because the end of your chapter isn’t conspicuously dramatic doesn’t mean a reader won’t want to read on.

So if our chapter breaks aren’t dramatic how do we know where they are? To begin with in the first draft this doesn’t matter because, as I keep saying, we’re just working out how the story goes in the first draft. While we’re editing we can change where chapters are and how many there are. Sometimes the best way to add a break is to read through and see where it feels like there should be a break, whether it’s due to time, scene or the feeling that you’ve said everything you want to in that chapter. Alternatively we may decide to join a series of chapters of together because alone they seem disjointed or have a feeling that you haven’t told all the story you want to.

Part of the difficulty with breaking chapters is that people can talk about them as if there is a definitive way to decide where a chapter break goes which isn’t always true. We might be able to plan out what story points we want to cover in that chapter but this doesn’t work for everyone because planning doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes we might just have a feeling about where the chapter should break and simply because we can’t say why to begin with doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Part of it can be the effect of developing as a writer but it largely comes from reading. The majority of writers are readers and having read a lot of books we develop a sense of chapter breaks.

For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on narrative structure see Finding Your Voice.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.


3 thoughts on “Tentative Transitions

  1. Did you know that the cliffhanger was invented by that well-known thriller writer Thomas Hardy? Yes, really; one chapter of A Pair of Blue Eyes, originally published as a serial, ended with Henry Knight literally hanging off a cliff. His rescue by his gf Effie caused a minor scandal, as she made a rope out of her underwear.

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