Episode 4: Where to End a Chapter


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Episode 4: Where to end a chapter Transcript

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

This is Season 1, Episode 4: How to end a chapter.

As always, here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from Misha, who says: I’m always cursing you when I’m finishing one of your chapters, because I HAVE to keep reading—how do you make them so un-putdownable?

Thank you, Misha! I’m sorry to keep you up past your bedtime, but it’s definitely deliberate. There’s an art to getting a chapter just right, so let’s talk about it. I’ve got four tips for you.

Tip one: A chapter doesn’t have to be a set length, and they don’t all have to be the same length. I’m asked about this surprisingly often. A chapter can be one line long, if that’s right for it – I’ve done this more than once, you can see short chapters in my book Aurora Rising. A chapter can also be hundreds or thousands of words long. Short chapters can help keep up the pace when a book is hitting a dramatic climax, but long chapters might suit you too. Don’t worry about uniformity, worry about whether the chapters are doing their jobs.

That brings us to tip two: The chapter needs to do its job, which means something needs to happen. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. famously said that every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. The things they want will drive the action. We’re going to talk a lot about this in future seasons, but generally—and none of these rules are ever set in stone—a helpful way to think about a chapter can be to think of it as containing a mini story arc. There should be a goal, an obstacle, and conflict. It’s fine to break this rule, but I’d suggest you do need a reason if you’re going to.

What does this have to do with how to end chapters? Well, that’s where we come to tips three and four.

Tip three is about that ending—what you don’t want to do is tie the end of your chapter up in a neat bow. That gives the reader a chance to sigh in relief, put the book down, and wander off. One option for avoiding this is to end the chapter with a ‘yes but’ or a ‘no and’. For this, we go back to the idea that the character needs a goal, an obstacle and conflict in the chapter. Does it conclude with them getting what they want?

The answer is yes, BUT now this other thing has gone wrong, or no, AND now this other thing has gotten worse. Either of these developments will help draw the reader on.

Some examples of this?

Yes, the character got the job, BUT they’ve just found out their co-worker, or their supervisor, is an ex they didn’t even know worked here.

Or yes, the character got their hands on the magical sword, BUT now they’re being chased.

Or it could be a no.

No, the character didn’t pull off the heist, AND their face got caught by the security cameras.

Or no, the character hasn’t escaped the snowstorm—they’re still trudging through it—AND they’ve just discovered the hut they were aiming for is a ruin. 

You’re aiming to leave a question open at the end of the chapter—how is the character going to handle their “yes, BUT” or their “no, AND”?

My final tip also sits right at the end of the chapter—it can be really effective to end a chapter on an unanswered question, but the other part to this is that the answer will mostly need to matter. You can’t have a mysterious roaring at the end of the chapter that turns out to be the TV show next door. That just says you’re messing with the reader. Perhaps you can get away with this as a fake-out occasionally, but do it frequently and the reader will wise up.

So, there are four tips for nailing the end of a chapter:

  1. Don’t worry about chapter length
  2. Something needs to happen—the characters need to want something, and encounter obstacles
  3. Don’t wrap it up with them getting what they want—or if you do, make things worse because of it
  4. End with an unanswered and important question

I want to say again that there’s no such thing as a golden rule—I mean, I don’t always follow these tips myself! But they’re a good place to start when you’re figuring out how to make your chapters compelling.

Here’s an exercise: Pull five books you love and found hard to put down off the shelf, and look at the chapter endings. What do you think the author’s doing? To help what you’re learning stick in your head, jot down a sentence on what each author does, and whether you think it works.

Usually this is where we wrap up, but because it’s the last episode of the month, I’m sticking around a couple of minutes longer to give you a book recommendation. This month, I want to tell you about All These Monsters by Amy Tintera. To be clear, these book recommendations aren’t sponsored or influenced by anyone in any way—they’re just books I love that demonstrate great writing, and make great reads.

So let’s talk about All These Monsters. Amy Tintera is one of my favourite authors, and I think this is her best yet. We’re in the near future, but it’s diverged slightly from our own—you’ll still recognize the world, the brands you know, the music, the cities.

 But a few years before the story starts, the scrabs arrived—they’re monsters of unknown origin, and they burrow underground. Anywhere, any time, they can burst up out of nowhere and attack, and when they do it’s deadly.

Clara is a badass Latina stuck in her family home with her abusive father—the portrayal of an abusive parent is so sensitive and so well done, but it’s realistic, so that’s something to be aware of. When Clara gets the opportunity to join an international youth effort to fight the scrabs, she takes it. It’s her escape. Think about the amazing youth movements we’ve seen in recent years—the feeling of “if you adults won’t fix this, we will”—that’s what we’re talking about. Her experiences as she trains and prepares to face the scrabs—and as she realizes that this is for real a life-or-death situation, because they will kill you—are fantastic. And I don’t want to tell you too much more from there, because I really want you to read it and love it and experience it like I did.

I read this book in two sittings, and there was only a break in between because my toddler woke up. It’s totally immersive, it’s something new and fresh, the action and the relationships are fantastically done. It absolutely pulls off what I’ve been talking about this episode—Clara has so much to lose, and so many ways to change—and I really recommend it.

And that’s our book recommendation! Next week, I’ll be answering a very frequently asked question about writer’s block. Next week – if you’re listening to this as it’s released – I’ll also have a new book available wherever good books are sold. It’s actually out in Australia right now! It’s called The Other Side of the Sky, and if you like listening to me ramble about writing, then I think you’ll like it.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen.  It really helps get the podcast in front of new listeners.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, host of one of my favourite podcasts, The Exploress, which time travels through women’s history one era at a time. You can find her at theexploresspodcast.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


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