Obsession: Chapter Endings

As writers, we obsess over chapter endings for good reason.

The best ones hook readers for another few minutes, or hours. Not so good and it’s lights-off-for-bedtime.

We love a good chapter ending when we read it, but recognizing one and writing one are mysteriously different.

“We know we need to craft good chapter endings but, fingers over keyboards, we ask, ‘How?'”

What makes a good chapter ending? Nuggets of conventional wisdom include: vary your endings, make the reader want to turn the page, and don’t always end on the same note.

If an ending falls flat, ends on a down note, or feels too conclusive, it’s easy for the reader to feel satisfied and put the book down.

And, my favorite pair of instructions: be dramatic, but don’t overdo it. Too many cheesy cliff-hangers in a row, and we feel taken advantage of.

We know we need to craft good chapter endings but, fingers over keyboards, we ask, “How?”

As I turned page after page in Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley, the chapter endings were strong, interesting, and elicited that cliff-hanger “wow” feeling without being predictable. I dug in for a closer look and found two attributes worth emulating when writing chapter endings.

Individually, good endings stoke the reader’s curiosity and keep them reading.

Collectively, good endings are mini-arcs within the story, mirroring and reminding us of the larger story arc.

For the first six chapters of Magonia, my primary reaction at each chapter’s end was curiosity. Headley shared something unexpected in the last lines, and I wondered what it meant for Aza, the main character.

The chapter ending pointedly asked the question already forming in the reader’s mind. Who is calling Aza? Why does she feel a connection to the ship in the sky? What is her physical malady? Questions build as the story develops.

Some endings interrupt and introduce new questions.

Chapter 5 introduces a possible romantic connection between Aza and Jason. However, the end of Chapter 5 halts the romantic possibility and returns us to our earlier questions. The emotional result is that I’m reminded of my primary curiosity about Aza and I have an important new story line.

Just as I’m getting comfortable with curiosity, Headley changes it up, with stunning endings. I won’t tell you what happens in Chapters 6 and 7, but it’s enough to say the tension builds then explodes and when Chapter 7 winds down, I sure needed the pause at the end of that Chapter.

Chapters 8 through 15 follow a pattern like the beginning of the book. New events and a new point of view add to the pile of questions in my mind. There’s another tension-release moment in Chapter 11, and the last lines lift us from sadness to a mystery about the hidden bird haunting her mother’s ship, propelling us past a potential stopping point into the next chapter.

“The variety of endings creates a powerful flux of emotions in the reader.”

Many of the chapters in the 3/4 part of the book end on powerful feelings. Aza is in discovery mode, therefore we are too. Each chapter ending reinforces a different emotion from Aza’s or Jason’s experiences. We want to know more about Jason’s quest to find Aza. We want to understand Aza’s relationship – sometimes angry, sometimes enchanting – with Dai. The variety of endings creates a powerful flux of emotions in the reader.

Haunted, cliffhanger-shocked, powerful, then surprised. Instead of building tension through the escalation of a single note (curiosity), in the middle of the novel Headley keeps us riding the ups and downs of the story, reinforcing each chapter’s emotional point with a punch at the end. We’re reading now for variety and surprise, not just curiosity and answers. After these highs and lows, Headley inserts short Chapter 18, which lets us relax and consider Aza’s new calling: to fulfill her mother’s quest. At this moment, the ending is reflective, connecting her two mothers and her desire to be safe with the plight of the sky. It’s complex and thoughtful and feels quieter than the preceding chapters.

The pause-ending is effective here because the question of what she will do, now that we know the stakes, compels us past the quiet chapter ending.

For the last third of the book, Hadley shifts her focus from raising questions to answering some of them. She balances answers with a last plot twist and reversals of some of the answers. The ending is strong, reinforced three times in the last three chapters, sealing our sense of satisfaction at the story’s end.

The last chapter ending is well done in terms of the feeling of the final lines. They’re romantic and symbolic. “If I have to fly, he’s flying with me. If I have to sail, he’s on my ship. I lace my fingers into Jason’s. I hold on tight. I breathe in. I breathe out.” (309)

“Collectively, the chapter endings create three mini-arcs within the plot”

When considered as a thread through the novel, the chapter endings are strong, and they support the chapters by driving the reader through the book. Individually, the endings stimulate reader curiosity, reinforce main emotions from the chapter, and keep the reader on track with the big questions of the story.

Collectively, the chapter endings create three mini-arcs within the plot: Aza’s physical ailment, the mystery of Magonia, and the resolution of the conflict between earth and Magonia through Aza’s actions.

As writers, we can pull our endings out, consider how they work at these two levels, and connect them to the skeleton of our story so the whole work stands strong.

Read More: Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley

Posted on Sunday, 19 August 2018

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