Writing Homework #3: Chapter Breaks

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We talked about first lines last time, so now, let’s talk about last lines. Not last last lines, because ending the whole story is a topic worth covering on its own; today, I want us to study chapter breaks.

Now, I’m not concerning myself here with how long a chapter is–it’s a common question I’ve seen asked writing advice blogs, and the answer is invariably “As long as it needs to be.” I want to take a look at how the chapters end.

Chapter breaks serve two purposes that almost seem conflicting: they divide a story into manageable chunks and give a reader easy places to set down the book for a while, but they also need to keep the reader interested and make them want to turn that page, to keep going.

So, they’re kind of a big deal, and they don’t get talked about much that I’ve seen.

I want you to pick a familiar book off your shelf with distinct breaks, be it chapters or sections or days, as long as one chunk of text can be clearly separated from the next. I don’t recommend an unread book for this exercise, as I have with the other assignments so far, because a) spoilers, and b) the tone of each chapter is important for this, so you won’t know if you haven’t read it.

For as many chapters as you want to look at, write down the chapter number and title, if it has one. Then skim the chapter for the major tone–is it action, tension, flashback, character study-ish, and so forth–and note that down. Then copy out the final line.

Once you’ve got a chunk of chapters done (or the whole book, if you want to be ambitious), take a look at how each line relates to the tone of both its own chapter and the one following it.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is this a closed ending, or an open one? A closed ending provides a sense of finality to the content of the chapter, which is helpful for dividing chapters of wildly different tones; but open endings leave a question in the reader’s mind and drive them to keep reading for the answer.
  • Does the tone of the final line match the tone of the chapter, and if it doesn’t, does it match the next one? Matching tones will provide a complete feeling, while different tones can heighten tension–for example, a chapter that is mostly conversation ending with sudden action, to set up for an action chapter.
  • How successful is this line at making me want to turn the page? And if you find any that don’t push you to keep reading, how might you change them? Where else in the chapter would you have ended it?
  • Is there a balance to the tones of each chapter ending, or does one dominate over the others? I’ve got an example here, though it’s not from a book. I recently watched the anime Death Note, and I loved it for its twisted worldview, fascinating characters, and tight mystery writing. What I didn’t love as much was that nearly every episode ended on a cliffhanger. Some were bigger cliffhangers than others, so there was a little relief from time to time, but the final half the series, especially, was a long run of ever-escalating tension. And for that particular story, even if I didn’t love it, I can see how it was an effective strategy. On the other hand, if every single chapter in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone ended on a cliffhanger…well, that wouldn’t work, now, would it?
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3 thoughts on “Writing Homework #3: Chapter Breaks

  1. I agree with you Elena. Ending every chapter breathless, makes a tense read. Three of my favorite authors, end most of their chapters in a rather mundane fashion unless the action is poised and precipitous. But a good snare in one of the first three chapters is a great way to grab the reader’s attention, build that queasy unease and set the initial tone. I looked at some books that weren’t all that great and noticed they had a real bad habit of putting too much tension between “changes” so when tension was truly needed, the thrill was muted and dull. Thanks, I’ll be back.

    Liked by 1 person

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