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How to Button a Chapter

The white space and page break at the end of a chapter is a dangerous place. It’s very easy to lose your reader there, unless you give them a reason to stay and turn the page. Distractions are always beckoning, and nowhere is your grasp on your audience more tenuous.

What you never want to do with your chapter button is make your reader feel at peace. Unless it’s the last chapter. But if your reader thinks, at any other point in the book, “Wow, glad everything worked out,” they will put your book down.

So how do you carry them through to the next chapter? Here are some ideas:

  • Cliffhanger: stop in a place that pretty much guarantees a page-turn
  • Introduce a new character, plot point, or idea
  • Tie into theme: harken back to the Big Idea of your story with a thematic image
  • When all else fails, angst: if you do give your character a quieter moment, make sure to dip into Interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) and show the reader how unsettled things are under the surface with some worry or anxiety

That said, not every chapter button can be a heart-stopping cliffhanger (unless you are writing a thriller or action-packed novel, like The Hunger Games). That would get exhausting unless, again, it fits with the overall tone and genre of your story. (It could also get predictable and, as a result, have the opposite effect and disengage your audience. You don’t want your reader feeling content, but you also don’t want them thinking, “Oh, gee, I wonder what random bad news will drop out of the sky in this chapter.”) It’s okay to go for low-grade tension with some buttons (the theme and Interiority suggestions, above), as long as you have enough that truly grab your reader in a big way.

For more on this topic, read up on Prime Real Estate.

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  1. RedBootPearl’s avatar

    I love the angst, especially in MG when there is something completely mortifying going on, that always gets me to turn the page. Great tips, thanks :)

  2. Julie Daines’s avatar

    What an amazing coincidence! I just blogged about this exact same topic at Utah Children’s Writers. I agree with everything!

    Hope you had a great trip!

  3. Heather’s avatar

    oh yes! Thanks again for the reminder.

  4. Michelle Teacress’s avatar

    All the books on my fave list are written by authors who are skilled at this. Point well made, as usual.

    Have a great week!

  5. Beth Stilborn’s avatar

    This is such a good post, and very timely as I’m embarking on a series of chapter books and revising a middle grade novel. Thank you!

  6. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Thank you for the list! I’m unfamiliar with the theme method, though. If you have a chance, I’d love a couple of examples to read (even if you just point me to a book that uses this method a few times). Thanks!

  7. Lari Don’s avatar

    I often discuss cliffhangers with children when I’m in schools on author visits, and their reaction when asked if they like cliffhangers is usually mixed, but very wise too. Kids say they find cliffhangers frustrating, but also love the excitement, and that desire to read on. Our readers, however young (I write fantasy adventures for 8-12s), do know that we’re pushing their buttons!

  8. Darshana’s avatar

    Thanks for the post, short and to the point. Bookmarking this for reference.

  9. Becky’s avatar

    I love cliffhangers, but you are right. A book full of them can be exhausting!

  10. Carol Riggs’s avatar

    Oooh, great points. It’s easy to overdo a good thing–ANYTHING. Even cliffhanger chapter endings; thanks for the reminder.

    Ha, I always think of RL Stine; I used to read his books to my daughters, and there was one chapter where he “had” to end with a cliffhanger, and it was all tense and creepy with unexpected noises behind the MC. We turned the page to the next chapter and Stine wrote something like: “It was just his mother, coming home from getting groceries.” Gah!

  11. Karen Cioffi’s avatar

    Thanks for all the value writing information you share!

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