Discussion: How Do You Decide Where to End a Chapter?

Photo credit: guzzphoto on Flickr
Ending a chapter in the right (or wrong) spot can be the difference between unputdownable and “I guess I’ll get back to this tomorrow.” Every chapter ending turns the tables on the readers who now have to decide whether to read one more chapter or take a break. 

These chapter endings are opportunities, but they can easily become lost opportunities if you don’t make the most of them.

While you’re first drafting, however, deciding where to end a chapter can sometimes be tricky. And when someone on Twitter recently asked me how I decide, it occurred to me I hadn’t really written about it. 

I’d kind of glazed over this part largely because the answer is hard to explain—because while I’m first drafting at least, where to end a chapter, for me, is part instinctual and part planning. But even that has changed as my writing process has changed. 

When I first drafting in Word, where to end a chapter, for me, was 100% instinctual. When I wrote a line that sounded like it’d be a good hook, I’d hit enter a couple times and start a new chapter. Sometimes this was in the middle of a scene, sometimes at the end—it was a case-by-case basis but what they had in common was that they ended on lines that I hoped would be intriguing enough that readers would want to read on. 

When I switched to first drafting to Scrivener, however, my process changed slightly. Before I start drafting at all, I plan out just about every scene and write a quick sentence or two or three summary of what will happen for each scene. While first drafting, I think less about where the chapter will end and more about ending the scene in a way that is interesting and will make readers want to read on. Granted, with the way I have Scrivener set up, the “chapters” are automatically split up by scene, and I further split them up while revising, but it’s often less present in my mind than it was when I wrote in Word. 


Sometimes, I’ll write a line near the end of a scene and stop earlier than I expected because I hit a point that would make a perfect chapter ending. Or I’ll break mid-scene while writing because I've reached a great hook. And that stuff is still very much instinctual. 

That said, after drafting in Scrivener I’ve done a lot more chapter splitting while revising than I did before—which, actually, I don’t mind because it really forces me to pay attention to my chapter endings and decide where would be the best place to break. 

Deciding on chapter endings while first drafting, however, can be a really fluid process, so I’m curious: how do you decide where to end a chapter? 

Twitter-sized bite: 
How do you decide where to end a chapter? Join the discussion on @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet)


MK said...

I've moved around my chapter endings of my first manuscript so many times! I'm currently editing it (again) and I'm sure they will move (again). For me it's tricky because I have multiple points of view, so I feel like I have to end that person's POV on a chapter ending then start the next chapter on someone else's...

Separate but related question: how do you decide how long your chapters are? I've struggled with some being too short, some too long. This affects where my chapters end as well!

Ava Jae said...

That depends on the MS. If I've set a precedent of short chapters, then I try to stick with that and keep my chapters shorter. If I've set a precedent of long chapters, then I give myself more wiggle room. Generally, though, if my chapters start going about 3.5kish, that's when I start thinking about splitting.

MK said...

Thanks! 3.5 K is a good limit to set.

Melissa Menten said...

Very timely topic for me as I'm one quarter of the way through a first draft and I keep thinking about trying to end each chapter with a hook. I also have the same problem as MK-sometimes I feel like a chapter comes out very short (or long) in comparison to the others, but it depends on the flow of the scene.

An important scene (plot or character arc-wise might not lend itself to a good hook ending, or be so short and so closely connected with another scene that even if there's a good hook, I feel like I need to continue the chapter. But since this is a first draft, I am just doing the best I can to create endings that will keep the pages turning without stressing too much as I can work on that in revisions. I do think there's a lot of instinct involved, along with unconscious (and sometimes conscious) use of skills picked up while studying good writing.

Thanks for addressing this topic, Ava Jae!

Natalie said...

I'm first drafting right now as well! There are some chapters that I know will end on cliffhangers where important information is revealed or the protagonist is in danger, but I don't think that every chapter has to end with a cliffhanger. If every chapter did, then the reader might become tired of them.

If I do my job right, and the reader cares about the characters, even a happy moment like starting a new romance or a wedding can be a good hook because the readers would want to see how things develop from there.

Braden Russell said...

On my last novel, I tried something new--I outlined only by scene, thinking about chapter breaks as little as possible, and planned to organize it by chapter in the revision process.
It turned out to be a very bad idea, at least for me. Now I have a big, fat, utterly chapterless 150,000 word behemoth sitting in Scrivener, and I'm not really sure where to start the chaptering process. I wish I'd planned out chapter breaks ahead of time, the way I normally do. Usually that way is fairly instinctive and easy for me--this last project was just me trying something different and wishing I hadn't. Heheh.

Sam Taylor said...

Looking at a (nearly) completed MS of mine .. I think I follow mini arcs in the story as a guide for chapter breaks. Sometimes my chapters break on cliff hangers (especially toward the end, or in very intense parts). Sometimes they break when new information is revealed or circumstances begin to change for the characters, either for better or worse. It seems there was this intrinsic ebb and flow to this particular manuscript that lent itself nicely to chapter breaks.

Now ... onto revising a first draft of a new MS, and seeing what approach works for this little beast.

Ava Jae said...

Sure thing! It's proved to be a good cut-off point for me. :)

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