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Button on Character

This has a lot to do with Monday’s post about guiding the reader emotionally. It also has to do with ending a chapter. Whenever you plunge your reader into white space (the white space at the end of a chapter, for example), you run the risk of losing them. So a lot of writers employ some smart tactics to keep this from happening.

I always recommend that you end on a cliffhanger, or introduce a new character, piece of information, or plot complication. Anything that will add tension and make your reader compulsively turn the page and start reading your next chapter. In essence, you never want to end a chapter with the character thinking about how tranquil everything is, or the reader will close the book and go play Xbox.

Well, sometimes you do use something drastic, like a cliffhanger, at the end of a chapter, but there’s the potential for a missed opportunity there, as well. Take this example:

And her father–right there in the flesh, after she thought he’d been dead all these years–walked right through the door.

Wow! Cool! I want to find out what happens, don’t you? Well, this could also be very abrupt if it’s the last sentence of your chapter. And if you tend to do this over and over, it will start to feel like your reader hitting a brick wall with each successive instance. Per the Law of Diminishing Returns, the cliffhanger tactic will also start to lose its tension-rich effectiveness.

One way to mitigate this effect, retain the tension, and also give the reader a more complex emotion than just “surprise” is to always button on character. This means to go back to your protagonist for a reaction before abruptly ending the scene. We get the surprise (or whatever tactic you’re using here), but then we’ll also put it in context, get some emotional resonance, and refocus on the protagonist’s experience of the story. If done right, this packs more of a punch than just a shock. So don’t leave your protagonist and their emotional reaction hanging until the beginning of the next chapter every time. A strong character-focused button will still keep readers invested enough to turn the page.

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  1. T.L. Bodine’s avatar

    I’m reading the Hunger Games trilogy right now (I know, I am SO far behind the times) and I can’t help noticing that the vast majority of the chapters end on a cliff-hangery note like this. What’s especially odd to me is the pacing of the book. Vast swathes of time can pass between paragraphs or even within a single paragraph, but almost without fail, no time passes between chapters. The chapter break nearly always happens right smack in the middle of the “turning point” of a big scene.

    It’s an interesting method, but it starts to feel very monotone. At the end of every chapter I can almost hear the “DUN dun” (from Law & Order) and it’s distracting. Once I’m invested in a book and I care about the characters, I really don’t *need* every chapter to be a cliffhanger. In fact, I’d kind of prefer if they weren’t.

  2. Connie B. Dowell’s avatar

    I like the buttoning technique but I think even that couldn’t quite take the edge off if every single chapter ended in a cliffhanger plus button. It’s like chili powder. A little makes it spicy. A lot, intolerable.

  3. K Callard’s avatar

    It’s true that you don’t want to do it too often. On the other hand, I remember reading The DaVinci Code (years ago now, so maybe my memory’s a bit fuzzy) and even though I didn’t really like it, I couldn’t put it down because pretty much every chapter ended on a cliffhanger and I wanted to see what happened. I think I read the whole thing in less than a day (a work day, even).

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