A lot of folks obsess over how to begin their stories and their chapters - however, understanding the right way to end a chapter is just as important.
*Note: This can be applied to scenes, but there are other things to consider with scenes as well. I’ll cover scene endings more fully in a future tip.
There are as many types of chapter endings as there are chapter beginnings. However, they can generally be concentrated down to two basic types of endings: a push and a pull.
A push is an ending that pushes the momentum from the current chapter into the following chapter. It allows you to take all the action and emotion and buildup from the current chapter and move you on into the next, regardless of whether that next chapter is taking place immediately after the first or it’s taking place several months later.
A scene ending that pushes you into the next scene can do so in several different ways - some examples include:
By setting up a question that will be answered in the next scene.
By setting up or establishing a mystery to be investigated.
By setting up emotional or psychological tension.
By setting up a new development by way of a new setting/atmosphere/mood/etc.
For example -
… a character finally arrives at their new school, but at first glance they can tell it is not what they expected.
… a character realizes that new evidence they discovered regarding their mother’s murder means the man in prison for the crime can’t be the killer.
… a character gives up hope on completing the quest that originally set them out on their journey.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a cliffhanger, though this is perhaps the most common of these types of endings. The big question that you could establish could very well be whether or not your character is seriously injured after a fall. However, it could also be something like what was he going to say before he got interrupted? So just keep that in mind - it doesn’t have to be a big, major, climactic push.
A pull is a chapter ending where instead of pushing out and into the next chapter, you pull together elements from the current and preceding chapters. A pull can happen when a character finally begins to piece together elements of a mystery they’ve been attempting to resolve, or it can be a character coming to a resolution or new direction based on the things that have happened to them in the past few chapters.
Some examples of “pulls” can include:
A character coming to a realization.
New information coming to light based on past investigations.
Wrapping up past events to move into new ones.
Seemingly unrelated plot elements finally coming together.
A “pull” ending can be, but isn’t necessarily always, a “settling” chapter. You can think of this as a character finally getting the chance to settle down and sleep after a very long, difficult day (though there are other ways to have your character’s “settle”).
Essentially, with these endings you want there to be a bit of a slowing of momentum - you’re giving your reader a chance to breathe before moving on to the next bit of action (or the option to finally put the book down and go to sleep, not that they’re necessarily going to do so.)
A novel should ideally have a good mix of chapters and scenes that end on a push or a pull. Typically, you’ll push a bit more, especially while you’re establishing the story in the beginning and building up towards the climax. But of course, that’s not always the case.
You can visualize it somewhat as waves on the ocean. There’s a constant pushing and a momentum forward. The pull happens a lot less often, but when it does it’s a quick snap that draws everything in, just a little, before you’re back to pushing. Until you get to the very end of the story, of course, and after one last enormous push you allow everything to be pulled back together into its final shape.
Later, I’ll talk about some of the things you want to avoid when ending scenes. Consider this more of a primer for the way you should be looking at scenes - it can get a bit more complex from here.