Flat chapter finales are a fast track to reader disappointment. Here’s how to nail those last few lines so that readers can’t wait to turn the page.
Readers turn the page to find answers to questions. Why did that happen? Who’s responsible? What will happen next?
Unanswered questions at the end of chapters place us in a state of suspense. We’ll try to predict the answers based on the information we’ve been given.
We might be proved right. I thought so!
We might be proved wrong. I didn’t see that coming!
Either way, as long as there’s suspense, we’ll turn the page. Here are some ideas, with examples from published fiction, about how to do it, so that even predictable outcomes are structured line by line such that readers are itching with anticipation.
1. Wrap up the chapter in the middle of something interesting
There are two people in a bedroom. They’ve survived a harrowing encounter. And there’s oodles of sexual tension between them.
A less confident writer might wrap up the chapter as follows:
‘I’m sorry I shot you,’ she said, and slipped into the bed. ‘But I did it to save your life.’
Mark pulled off his tie and began to undo the buttons on his shirt.
They made love, then ordered food and drink – two omelettes and fries and a bottle of champagne – and, after they’d eaten, and drunk, they made love again.
The problem here is that the suspense dissipates. Mark begins to undress but we don’t bother to wonder what will happen next – whether he and the woman will have sex, or try to but be interrupted, or do the deed and grab some food. We don’t need to – we’re told.
Fear not! This is actually a tweaked version of an excerpt from Solo by William Boyd, Vintage, 2014 (pp. 259–60). Boyd is cannier. This is what it really looks like:
In the real version, we do ask those questions. The artistry lies in the fact that we have to turn the page to find the answers and relieve our suspense.
They’re given in the next chapter. A sex scene follows. It’s an interlude – a chance to breathe, for them and us – before Bond leaves and sets up a diversion that will confuse the CIA’s surveillance of him.
2. Wrap up the chapter with foreshadowing
Chapter endings that tell of incoming storms are powerful. When they’re short and taut, even better! Take a look at this super example from p. 210 of Clare Mackintosh’s Let Me Lie (Sphere, 2019):
That final line is like a punch in the gut. It begs us to ask: When will he come? What will he do? And how will she protect herself? It’s six words of masterful suspense.
3. Wrap up the chapter with emotional reflection
In the The Man with No Face by Peter May (Riverrun, 1981), the protagonist, a journalist called Neil Bannerman, walks into a restaurant and alerts a minister that he has evidence about a government cover-up. That’s the juicy bit.
Bannerman then exits, leaving the minister to mull over the revelation. That’s the mundane bit and May needs a way to close the chapter with a pop. Emotional reflection is the tool of choice.
Here’s the excerpt from p. 233:
The journos and minister won’t be enjoying their meal but this isn’t an exercise in gastronomy. The end-of-chapter suspense comes in the form of questions: Will there be consequences for Bannerman? How will those play out? Will the minister get his just deserts?
4. Wrap up the chapter with a surprise interruption
Another way of wrapping up a chapter when the big stuff has already played out is to introduce some sort of surprise interruption. Perhaps there’s a knock on the door from an unexpected visitor, or an odour that forces the viewpoint character to direct their attention elsewhere.
Here’s another excerpt from Let Me Lie (p. 226). Murray, the viewpoint character, has just had a telephone call with Anna, during which he told her that her parents had indeed been murdered. She becomes emotional and commands him to drop the investigation, despite her bringing the case to him in the first place.
What would ordinarily be a domestic mundanity serves to show his mood; his shock is so immersive that he’s forgotten everything around him until the alarm goes off.
We leave the chapter imagining the shrill noise, the odour of burnt food, the smoke in the kitchen, and wondering what on earth has happened to make Anna change her mind.
5. Wrap up the chapter with a shocking last line
There’s nothing better than a final line that the reader doesn’t see coming. Here’s a magnificent example from David Baldacci’s True Blue (Kindle edition, Macmillan, 2009).
In Chapter 4, we meet Roy, a young lawyer. He finishes a game of basketball and slopes back to the office where, we learn, he earns a healthy pay cheque by plea-bargaining on behalf of mostly guilty defendants.
Baldacci sets up the whole chapter as just another day at the office. We should know better than to be lulled into this false sense of security, but Baldacci’s narrative is strong enough from the start to convince us this might go in another direction.
Maybe Roy is crooked. Perhaps he’s about to be fired. Maybe he’s going to get a phone call telling him he has to go to court and represent someone he’d rather not. What we don’t expect is the wallop when a body falls out of the fridge.
And now we have a ton of suspenseful questions. Who is she? How did she get in the fridge? Why was she killed? To find out, we’ll have to turn the page.
6. Wrap up the chapter with dialogue that demands answers
One great line of dialogue can close a chapter beautifully. No action beats, no narrative, no response – just the spoken word. It works as an outro when the speech leaves us with questions, and therefore in suspense.
Here's an example from New Tricks by David Rosenfelt (2009, Grand Central Publishing, pp. 215–16):
The dialogue forces us to wonder: Why has Richard not carried out the redirect? Has some new evidence come to light? How will this affect the case?
Rosenfelt doesn’t dampen the suspense by cluttering his prose with the detail of what came next – maybe people in the courtroom looked surprised or confused; perhaps there was an objection, and the judge banged their gavel and announced a recess.
Instead, all that stuff is left unwritten – we just imagine it. It’s one line of dialogue and the chapter’s done.
7. Wrap up the chapter in the middle of one character’s speech
Here’s Rosenfelt again in Dog Tags (Grand Central Publishing, 2010, pp. 28–9). Unlike in the example above where there’s a natural chapter break because of a shift from the courtroom to the chambers, this time he inserts the chapter break in the middle of one person’s speech.
Less experienced authors might shy away from this, but it can work – if it’s an appropriate suspense point that leaves the reader reeling with questions.
That final line is a shock, for lawyer Andy Carpenter and us. Why would a dog need a lawyer? How can such an absurd conversation be happening? We learn the answers to these questions in the next chapter, and that’s exactly where they should be because ‘The government’ is the suspense point that grabs us by the scruff of the neck and demands we keep reading.
Do you know when it’s closing time?
Like artists who can’t put down a paintbrush, less confident writers sometimes lack the courage to end with one line that evokes questions rather than solutions.
Yet that’s what the authors in all the examples above have done, and that’s why their outros are suspenseful and page-turning.
If your chapters have a saggy bottom, maybe you haven’t identified closing time. I line edit for an author who writes knockout chapter endings … he just places them 10 lines further up the page than they should be to create a suspenseful finale!
When you find yourself stuck, look up the page to find the point that will make the reader think How’s that going to play out? or Why did she do that? or That was a surprise! or Ha! You deserved that. … those few lines that will kick them up the backside and push them forward.
If those lines are already there, think about whether they should be moved to the end of the chapter, or whether the prose after them should be shifted (or even deleted).
If they’re not there, write them.
Think about the very last sentence in your chapter too. How long is it? Your writing style and genre might dictate the style of your final lines but notice how lean the word count is in most of the examples above. The brevity acts like a command: Read me. Pay attention. Turn the page.
Every chapter should end with a pop, regardless of genre. Those last few lines are what the reader remembers before they pause. An otherwise beautifully crafted chapter can be ruined if it flops at the finishing line.
Find the suspense point – the lines that make readers ask questions – and use them to wrap up your chapter. And pay attention to the very last sentence. Sometimes less is more.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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