You never forget your first time. Your first time you read a book and one single sentence blows the top of your head off and makes you realize the terrifying power of what a great writer can accomplished with a few simple words. Every professional writer has that first moment of breathless chills like a caffeine pill has just kicked in and you feel like the words you read are not words but wings and you can fly with them.
My first time was with Robert Penn Warren and the book All the King’s Men. It was the summer of 1998. The book starts out slow. There’s a road and a driver and a group of men in a drugstore. The voice of Jack Burden, the book narrator’s slowly starts to seep into the brain and take possession of it so entirely you can’t tell your own inner voice from Jack’s. Jack is a political operative for Governor Stark. Stark’s got enemies as all politicians do. It’s Jack’s job to dig up dirt on the enemies and neutralize their threat to the governor. By the end of chapter one, it’s clear who the enemy is who will be the focus of the novel—Judge Irwin, an old family friend of Jack’s. Governor Stark is insistent—Jack has to get the dirt. This is how chapter one of All the King’s Men ends.
Governor Stark, speaking of the dirt Jack needs to get on Judge Irwin says:I still have the copy of that book I read in the summer of 1998, that sentence highlighted in fading yellow. The moment I read that final sentence of chapter one, I couldn’t put the book down. It was glued to my hand for days. That sentence was a canon shot that blasted me through the entire book. I had to find out what dirt Jack dug up on the Judge and what the fallout was that led him to tell this story years later. That one sentence is so cemented into my brain that I might utter it as my last words on my deathbed, because no other words are so deeply burned into my brain. Nobody can end a chapter like Robert Penn Warren. But we can try.
“And make it stick.”
Which leads to the greatest chapter ending in the history of English literature.
Little Jackie made it stick, all right.
Last week on Twitter, an aspiring writer said to me, “You end chapters so well. Is there a writing guide that teaches how to do that?” I told her, “Skip the writing guides. Read All the King’s Men.”
After telling her that, I realized she might be looking for more concrete advice than “Go read a novel about southern political intrigue written in 1947.” Using examples from my own books, I’ll show you three great ways to end chapters so that the sentences will stick in your readers’ minds and keep them turning pages.
Chapter Ending #1 –The Shocker
No, I’m not referring to the sexual practice (see the cover of Andrew Shaffer’s Fifty Shames of Earl Grey for a visual of the sexual shocker). I’m referring to how a skilled writer can shock a reader with new information in a single line with The Shocker technique. If you have a shocking moment in your book, put in at the very end of a chapter. I guarantee your readers won’t be able to put the book down once you shock them hard enough.
In my first novel, The Siren, I employ the shocker on several occasions. In chapter five, my leading lady Nora, an erotica writer, is on killer deadlines. She sits down and writes a long, explicit S&M sex scene involving an unnamed man flogging an unnamed woman before tying her to the bed and having his brutal way with her. Fairly typical erotica scene. Except afterwards she deletes every single word she’s just written. A write on deadlines deletes an entire scene? Why? When her roommate/intern asks her why she deleted everything she wrote that day, she answers in three words.
“It wasn’t fiction.”BAM! Now the reader knows that the unnamed woman is Nora and the scene is from her past, not her novel. This woman is more than she appears. When did Nora have this sexual encounter? Why does it consume her thoughts even though she’s on deadlines? And who is this mysterious man this powerful woman once submitted to sexually? Three words raise a dozen questions, and the reader must keep reading if she wants the answers.
Chapter Ending #2 – The Big Question
The Big Question—usually this refers to a marriage proposal and a marriage proposal is not a bad way to end a chapter. Who could put a book down on a “Will you marry me?” without turning to the next chapter to find out the answer? But a chapter can end on any big question as long as the outcome of that question affects the book in a profound way.
In book two in my Original Sinners series, The Angel, I end part one of the two-part book on a question. A nosy reporter has been following my anti-hero, kinky Catholic priest Father Stearns around. An anonymous tip has her convinced there’s more to him than meets the eye. But no amount of digging has revealed anything except that he’s a beloved, admired, and respected 47 year-old Jesuit priest who just happens to be incredibly handsome. For all her digging, beautiful young Suzanne has made only two discoveries—Father Stearns is a good priest and she wants to seduce him so much it hurts.
In the final scene of part one of The Angel, Suzanne wakes up on Father Stearn’s sofa. They’d been chatting at the rectory until the wee hours, and she’s dozed off. She hears him walking around upstairs and decides to go up and tell him goodbye. The reader knows that Father Stearns has a lover, my leading lady Nora. The reader also knows that Father Stearns never kisses or has sex with anyone but Nora. Suzanne only knows she’s wildly attracted to him but can’t let her feelings get in the way of her investigation. She climbs the stairs and wanders to what she thinks is his office. Instead it’s his bedroom and he’s undressing for bed with his back to her. She sees him. He seemingly doesn’t see her. This is how that chapter ends:
Never in her life had she seen a man with a more exquisite body… every inch of his back rippled with lean muscle, his biceps were ridged with sinewy veins. The long line of his spine was a canyon she wanted to traverse with her lips again and again…Her fingers tingled, her nipples tightened, and liquid heat gathered in deep in her stomach.And then I, the writer, close the door. Part two of the book begins six weeks later. I could hear the screams of readers all the way to my house in Kentucky. I smiled as I heard them scream. You better believe no one put the book down for the night at the end of that question. They all turned the page and kept turning until the found out the answer to the question, “Are you coming in?” Did Father Stearns betray Nora and have sex with someone else? Did Suzanne discover his deep dark secrets that night—that he’s a sadist with a lover and is intimately connected to Manhattan’s kink underground? What happened?
“Suzanne, are you planning on standing in the hallway all night staring at me? Or are you coming in?”
When you end a chapter on a big question, readers will keep reading until they find out the answer.
Chapter Ending #3 –The Promise
The Promise is one of my favorite ways to end a chapter. It’s a promise between the writer and the reader. A good ending that uses The Promise technique promises the reader that if they keep reading, they’ll read something they like.
For example, in The Mistress, book four in the Original Sinners series, Nora has been kidnapped. The kidnapper has a sadistic streak and enjoys forcing Nora to play the role of Scheherazade, telling entertaining bedtime stories to stay alive. These stories must be true and from Nora’s past. At the end of chapter seventeen, the kidnapper gloats about the fact that once upon a time, she broke up the teenage love affair between the two men who would one day be the two most important men in Nora’s life. Nora strikes back and says she’s wrong, that she didn’t break them up. The kidnapper is shocked and asks Nora to elaborate. The chapter ends thusly:
“Let’s just say that tonight, if you want it, I’ll have one hell of a bedtime story for you.”The kidnapper has to wait for the answer until bedtime. Nora won’t say a word more until then. Knowledge is power and Nora knows that this story is one that will keep her alive another night. Nora’s made a promise to the kidnapper, and I’ve made a promise to the reader—you keep reading and you’ll find out what Nora’s talking about, keep reading and you’ll get a glimpse of a sexual encounter that proves everything the kidnapper thinks and believes is wrong. End your chapter on a promise and then deliver big on that promise. You’ll build trust between you and your readers, and they’ll keep coming back for more.
There you go! While other writers are ending their chapters with everyone going to bed and turning off the lights or something equally dull, you’ll be blowing your readers out of the water with chapter endings that force them to keep reading. Do it well enough, and you’ll have your readers on the hook so firmly they won’t stop reading until they hit the last page.
One final piece of advice on ending chapters…
Make it stick.
Tiffany Reisz is the award-winning and international bestselling author of The Original Sinners series (Mira Books). When she’s not writing, she’s thinking of new ways to torture her readers with chapter endings that make them call her a sadist on Twitter. Tiffany takes this as a compliment.
Follow her on Twitter @tiffanyreisz (if you dare).