Having just talked a bit about beginnings, I’m now going to talk about endings…sort of. Specifically, I’m going to talk about chapter endings, because when you’re writing a novel, you end up having to do quite a lot of those.
A good chapter ending, from the point of view of a writer, is one that draws the reader on to keep reading even though the chapter is over. (From a reader’s point of view, this tends to end with finishing the novel at 3 a.m. and being grumpy at the office all the next day, but that’s another matter. And really, most readers who say that sound kind of smug about it…) The question is, what draws a reader further in?
The common answer is the cliffhanger – leaving the protagonist in the middle of some dire situation, so that the reader will have to keep reading in order to see how he/she gets out of trouble. This is the equivalent of the “hook” for starting a story, and it’s just as misguided. “How does the hero get out of this situation?” is certainly one possible place to end a chapter, but if every chapter ends with crocodiles snapping at the hero’s heels or a train bearing down on the kidnap victim who’s tied to the tracks, the story starts to look like bad pulp fiction or a cheesy action serial from the 1920s. Which is fine if you want to write cheesy action serials or bad pulp fiction, but not so good if you have other ambitions.
So how do you end a chapter to make readers want to keep reading? All you really have to do to have a good chapter ending is lead the reader to expect that something is coming up soon that they’ll really want to find out about. It can be a revelation (“I bet that in the next chapter George is finally going to tell Jack what Harriet has really been doing all this time!”); it can be action (“I bet the battle comes next!”); it can be the answer to a question (“Why is everyone being so sinister about that interview? Well, she’s going in; I guess the next chapter is where we find out”); it can be the arrival of a much-anticipated character, or a pending important discovery.
Somebody complained at me once about one of my books (I believe it was THE RAVEN RING, so that’s what I’m using as an example), claiming I’d ended every single chapter on a cliffhanger so that they couldn’t put it down. While very gratified by the reaction, I couldn’t remember doing any such thing, so I went back and looked. The first several chapters ended with: 1) the end of an interview and the POV being shown out of the building; 2) The end of a wait for another interview, and the POV being shown into the office, 3) the end of another conversation and the main character exiting to the street, 4) the POV arriving at her rooms, 5) the main character kitting up and leaving her rooms, 6) the POV and escort preparing to head off down the street, and 7) a secondary character asking a question.
Not very cliffhangerish sounding, any of them, I’d say…but that’s looking at it from an action point of view. In each case, the most recent bit of action has ended; the interview is over, the wait is over, the character is leaving somewhere or arriving somewhere new. If you look back at what has just happened, there appears to be closure.
But that’s only if you look very specifically at the action in each scene. I could equally well have described the first several chapter endings as: 1) the POV, having been given directions, sets off to do the job she came to do, 2) an interruption of a conversation that had unpleasant overtones, and that insinuated that the coming interview will be unexpected in some way, 3) a verbal threat made against the character on her way out of the building, with more mysterious insinuations about what’s really going on, 4) the character’s safe arrival at her rooms, having successfully dodged a threatening stranger who was following her for reasons which remain both unknown and unresolved, 5) the character donning weapons in obvious preparation for trouble, before leaving her rooms, 6) the character and her escort, having survived an unexpected attack, considering which direction to head to avoid further trouble, and 7) the cops demanding an explanation for various dead bodies and assorted mayhem.
In each case, the chapter ends both with closure and without closure. The incident is finished, but the POV character is left with new information to mull over…and that information is, quite frequently, obviously incomplete, which adds to the tension. Both the POV and the reader know that they are missing what is very likely to be important information, and that without it, the POV is likely to make mistakes. Furthermore, each chapter ending looks “closed” if you look back at what just happened (which is what I did with the first set of descriptions), but if you look forward, the reader has been led to expect that something interesting or tense is likely to be coming up soon: a conversation, an encounter, an explanation, something. And each of those things will provide the reader with the answers they’re looking for…but they’ll also raise a bunch more questions that won’t be answered for another chapter or two. So the reader has to keep on going, and going, all the way to the end.
If you set it up right, you can end a chapter with your POV character going to sleep and still have readers react as if it’s a cliffhanger, because they’re eagerly anticipating whatever they expect the POV to be dealing with once he wakes up in the next chapter.