I was rebellious as a child, and I blame books. My parents set regular bed times, but once I started reading at the age of four, the stage of bad behavior had been set. It started with Dick and Jane under the covers with a flashlight. While my Dad thought it was quite sentimental that I found the old classic reader to be so captivating, my flashlight was confiscated, and I was banished to wait until morning to “see Dick run”. By the time I was in elementary school, my parents decided that if we read as a family before bedtime, my imagination would be satiated by lights out. Ahem. Cough. Moving on to my pre-teen years, my parents embraced that they were raising a monster. A book monster. A child who would sacrifice sleep in order to finish a chapter . . . and that’s where the issue was. If only my parents had figured it out.
Have you noticed that the last book that kept you up until the wee hours was the book whose chapters ended with a hook? What do I mean by a “hook”? Well, that feeling that the scene is coming to a satisfying close and you can reach for the lamp by the bed to flick it off. But, then the author has the audacity to drop that killer last line, or enticing cliffhanger paragraph, and it’s a necessary evil to turn the page and begin the following chapter. Excuses like “just the first few paragraphs to see what happens”, or “just five more minutes”, are prevalent in the reading of such books. It’s a crime, really. I blame the population’s sleep shortage on end of chapter hooks.
Take Treasure Island. This one I finished in one day, stretched out over the course of an afternoon and an all-nighter. But what can a person do when the chapter ends with a line like: “It was a smile that had in it both something of pain and weakness—a haggard, old man’s smile; but there was, besides that, a grain of derision, a shadow of treachery, in his expression as he craftily watched, and watched, and watched me at my work.” GOOD HEAVENS! Hold your breath and turn the page!
Or something less, um, treacherous. Little Women. Cliffhanger chapter endings don’t occur in romances, do they? “When Laurie said goodbye, he whispered significantly, ‘it won’t do a bit of good, Jo. My eye is on you. So mind what you do, or I’ll come and bring you home.’” (I’m still upset Jo didn’t marry Laurie, although it would have quite ruined them both).
And YA fiction? Even Ralph from the Mouse and the Motorcycle mastered the chapter end hook. With one horrific sentence taught with friction, emotion, and that necessary turn-of-the-page. “The boy could not have said anything that would hurt Ralph more”.
So are there rules, as a writer, to gripping the reader with these intoxicating chapter ends? I believe there are, and I’ll share a few I learned when I wrote my first novella, “The Cowgirl’s Lasso” and had only 20,000 words to tell a story and keep a reader intrigued.
1. Study outside your genre. This one is a no-brainer, but yet, as writers, we often read so much within our genre that we don’t always stretch beyond to learn from others. I often share on my Facebook page different books I’m reading, and more often than not, they’re not in my genre of Historical Romance. For example, a romance isn’t necessarily going to end a chapter with a man behind the heroine, knife hoisted in the air above her back, ready to plunge … okay … you get the point. (pun intended) BUT! That heart-pounding finish can be translated into the romantic genre, as evidenced by adaptation.
“She pressed her fingers to the window pane. It was too painful, it hurt too much, and nothing could possibly make matters worse. Her eyes captured the reflection in the glass, moments before she felt his breath on her shoulder. The man she knew she belonged with, but could never have. The man she never wanted to see again.” Call it the “knife plunge end” … BAM! What happens next? Does she turn? Does he kiss her neck? Do they fight? I don’t know. There is no next-page in this scenario. (muah hahahaha! *insert evil laughter here*)
2. Eliminate sentences. For fun, take a chapter you’ve written with a satisfactory ending. Delete the last two sentences and see what happens. Often, you will find your chapter hook is already written, you just didn’t know it. Example: “Her eyes captured the reflection in the glass, moments before she felt his breath on her shoulder. The man she knew she belonged with, but could never have. The man she never wanted to see again. He was handsome, achingly so, and as she turned, she wondered if there could ever be a different ending. But as she met his eyes …” blah, blah, blah. You can see the chapter is coming to end, maybe not with a solidified romance, but definitely wordy, and most certainly not heart pounding.
3. Make them suffer, question, or yearn. Jo didn’t know if her sister would live. Jim questioned who Captain Silver really was. Dick longed to run. And Ralph the Mouse? He just had it bad in all directions. A chapter needs to end with that hanging chad. In our example, who is the man behind our heroine? She loves him, but did he leave her once, a long time ago? Perhaps he’s married and she’s longing for what she cannot have? Or does she simply love him and never said so? The questions. Oy, the questions. It makes me turn the page, does it you?
4. Insert an imaginary “To Be Continued.” Look at every chapter as an episode that isn’t completed until the next episode. Did you ever watch The Flash, Once Upon a Time, or 24? These episodes end with minimal resolution. Just enough to keep the viewer from putting their head through the wall, but not enough to get them to quit watching ‘cause it feels as if the story is complete. It means that on Sunday night, I’m popping popcorn and anticipating the start of Once Upon a Time because I waited a WHOLE WEEK! The bonus of being a writer? You only extend the wait time by one page. It’s magic.
Chapter hooks are so vital to a good book’s intrigue. It keeps the page turning and turning until finally, it’s 3 AM, and your dad is standing over your bed and slipping the book from your sleepy fingers, brushing your hair back, and whispering, “you goon.” Let’s make our readers “goons” who can’t turn out the light, because those chapters just keep ending with to be continued.
What book hooked you chapter after chapter, or what is the worst possible chapter ending for you, as a reader? As a writer, have you ever cut your last paragraph by a few sentences to see what happens?
Professional coffee drinker Jaime Jo Wright resides in the hills of Wisconsin writing spirited turn-of-the-century romance stained with suspense. Coffee fuels her snarky personality. She lives in Neverland with her Cap’n Hook who stole her heart and will not give it back, their little fairy Tinkerbell, and a very mischievous Peter Pan. The foursome embark on scores of adventure that only make her fall more wildly in love with romance and intrigue.
Jaime lives in dreamland, exists in reality, and invites you to join her adventures at jaimejowright.com.
Web site: www.jaimejowright.com
"The Cowgirl's Lasso," The Cowboy Bride's Collection - Barbour Publishing - March 2016
"Gold Haven Heiress," California Gold Rush Romance Collection - Barbour Publishing - August 2016
The Cowboy's Bride Collection: 9 Historical Romances Form on Old West Ranches
Ride onto the open range alongside cowboys and cowgirls who embrace the adventures of living in the Old West from Kansas to New Mexico, Colorado to Texas. Whether rounding up cattle or mustangs, training horses, fending off outlaws, weathering storms, competing in rodeos, or surviving drought these cowboys work hard each day. But when hardheaded men have their weaknesses exposed by well-meaning women will they stampede away or will a lasting love develop? Find out in this exciting collection of nine historical romances
Jaime Jo is giving away one print or e copy of The Cowboy's Bride Collection to one commenter. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.