Rick Riordan once asked me how to end a book chapter properly. Actually Rick asks me how to do a lot of things, such as how to start a story “en media res,” how to craft a great anti-hero, and how to microwave popcorn (not the brightest, that one).
Usually I tell Rick to go fuck himself, but lately I’ve been desperate for attention, so I’ll go ahead and answer his inquiries for your benefit.
Today we explore the methods for properly concluding any and every section of a book. I’ve read some terrible chapters in my time, not all of them by my fiancée (sorry, bae, but having a back tattoo and unrelenting sadness does not instantly make you “an auteur”) and lately I’ve begun to unravel a surprisingly banal pattern: tons of books conclude their chapters with arbitrary or ambiguous details in some kind of gambit to appear creative. But I would retaliate that this decision isn’t mysterious, isn’t meaningful, doesn’t instantly elevate, and instead hampers what could be responsible and precise communication.
To give you an idea of what I mean, let me refer you to the last paragraph of a chapter from Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood:
I ate a light lunch in Shinjuku and went to a telephone booth to call Midori Kobayashi on the off chance that she might be home alone waiting for a call again today. I let it ring fifteen times but no one answered. I tried again twenty minutes later with the same result. Then I took a bus back to the dorm. A special delivery letter was waiting for me in the mailbox by the entry. It was from Naoko.
The writing is inadequate and boring. It’s the equivalent of asking a friend how their day went and getting “well, I woke up, then I turned off my alarm, then I brushed my teeth, then…” In fact the passage is not even clear about what’s going on. Just who is Midori Kobayashi? Who is Naoko? What’s so special about a letter? I’d have to read the rest of the book to find out. Finally, it’s mundane, old-fashioned. Who uses telephone booths? Who writes letters? I thought Japan was the forefront of innovation.
So let’s write better, shall we? After all, writing is fairly easy, especially if you just plagiarize Harry Potter and mix in the Greek pantheon. The hard part is writing well, as anyone who is Rick Riordan can tell you. That’s why I’ve compiled four methods for ending a chapter in a way that will leave readers drooling, but not in a help me I’m turning into a shirtless werewolf kinda way.
One way to finish a chapter is with a promise. Basically, you (the author) promise that good stuff is on the way if the reader keeps reading. The best way to do this is to leave a note, maybe a post-script or if you have the budget an actual post-it note, along the lines of “it’s going to get better, I swear, please, just keep reading. Please. I have a [insert opiate enema of choice] addiction to maintain.”
Especially potent is the inclusion of a cute animal, preferably one at peak cute face.
The great thing about the promise is that there’s no obligation to fulfill it. If the reader chooses to finish the book, then it’s too late anyway – money’s in the bank, boiii! If they’re frustrated at your deception, well, they shouldn’t have been so flipping gullible. Next time, don’t finish a book that includes desperate pleas from the author to finish that book.
The second way to finish a chapter is by including something shocking, after which it’s probably a good idea to write “Shocking!” or have someone shout, “Why, that’s positively unprecedented!” I’m not sure what to do specifically to create surprise, but if your reader is shouting “Oh what the fuck, what the, seriously, what the fuck. Oh shit. Shit shit shit shit, oh fuuuuuuuuuuuuck” then you’re doing it right.
So shock the shittake out of your reader. Kill the main character, and the main character’s daughter. Kill everyone in your story. I don’t know. A virus, or something. Start over. A race of sentient animals. Bear people. They walk on two legs and wear biker gloves. One of them discovers a human baby in the woods and he has this dilemma. Should I inform the kin and risk them mauling the baby to death, or leave it to the elements? Shock again – the bear shoots the baby in the face. Then somebody shoots the bear. The Bears have found guns in the armories. Revolution. The world keeps turning.
Another shocking thing you can do is toss in a formative assessment. Ask the reader if you’re doing okay, then create an interactive environment by leaving a few lines for them to respond. Here are a few suggestions:
Hey bub, how’s the story? Everything all right so far?
Is the plot too good or too sappy? What about those pesky characters? Peaking your interest?
Finally, to really make them jump out of their seat, include a graphic image.
Put the above photo in your book. Go on. Don’t think about it, just do it. I dare you. Because nothing would be more shocking than to be reading about a child’s first experiences with systematic and societal racism in the Deep South as she watches her articulate father fail to defend an innocent black man before a biased jury, only to turn the page to a photo of a snake eating a deer, under which is a caption from the author that reads “Oh, I got you, you silly fuck.”
Ending on a question is another way to motivate a reader to stay in the general vicinity of your writing. Just make sure you don’t provide the answer immediately following the question; instead, and here’s the trick, don’t answer it at all. That’ll drive readers crazy and keep them engaged. Questions should be less vague then “what the?” but not as specific as “how many nose hairs does this whore have?” If you ask a question about what a character will do, such as “would she ever find love?” craft intrigue through a vague rejoinder such as “maybe” followed by “or maybe not.”
Questions are also a great placeholder while you’re trying to think of what’s going to happen next. And if you’re really stumped, you can use these questions as a writing prompt to which you’ll write the following chapters.
A famous example of the question would be from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in which she wrote the word “whodunit?” over and over again for twenty pages. Then there’s the breathtaking first chapter of Stephen King’s The Stand, when in a moment of intense violence and deliberation, the author suddenly breaks from the narrative to ask “how will our intrepid hero escape this one? Find out in the next chapter of Stephen King’s The Stand!”
Get a Celebrity Endorsement
Everyone has that one celebrity story. Maybe they met Brad Pitt on an elevator. Maybe they met Benedict Cumberbatch on another elevator. So why not give your reader that special celebrity anecdote through your writing? After all, you’re making it all up – why couldn’t a celebrity just show up at the end of your chapter?
Now, here’s the thing. Celebrities are trademarked or something, so you can’t just have Kayne West show up to fight demon umbrellas. If you want a celebrity but don’t want to get sued, then have that celebrity enter your story endorsing some philanthropic subject. What exactly they’re endorsing isn’t important; all that matters is that in real-life, if that celebrity objects to their literary cameo, then you can retort, “what, are you saying that you don’t care about starving orphans in Tibet?” or “so you want the government to chop down national rain forests? You monster.” Most likely if their appearance raises awareness and makes them look good, they won’t object.
Plus, it’s your world, so if you don’t like the celebrity, you can dump a bucket of slime on their head. Oh, that’ll get them. A big old bucket of slime. Oh I can see it now.
Don’t just use one of these methods – use them all! After all, most books have more than one chapter. If you use these methods, then you’re guaranteed a best seller (at least, a New York Times Bestseller, because every book is one of those). Don’t forget to promise, to shock, to question, to include a celebrity endorsement, and to not sleep with Joe Biden, and your writing will be puppy-approved.