Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Chapter Breaks and Cliffhangers

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
Chapter OneEvery time I read a great post on cliffhangers, I feel a little sorry that I don’t write too many of them.  It can make for a thrilling chapter ending, if the device isn’t overused. 

I don’t actually spend very much time thinking about my chapter breaks. I write the books straight through with no chapter breaks at all, then insert the breaks before I hand the book over to my editor.

My chapter breaks were inserted fairly haphazardly until a couple of readers  mentioned them….one in a review and one in an email. These folks wanted shorter chapters to accommodate their busy schedules and short amount of reading time.

Most of my chapters averaged 18 pages at the time that I got that reader feedback.  Not really feeling very strongly about chapter breaks one way or the other, I decided to accommodate the readers and write shorter chapters…I started inserting chapter breaks about every 10-12 pages.  I found that it did affect the pace of my books—it made the books read a bit faster….which is nice, for my genre.

What I generally do is look for a spot where there’s a good place for a break.  Occasionally, there’s a spot that’s perfect for a break because there’ll be a dead body discovered. :)  In that case, I rework the chapter breaks around that one to fit it in. 

One thing that I try not to do is to close a chapter at the point when my character turns in for the night.  I’d heard this wasn’t good because the reader would put the book down for the night, too.  So I’ll usually just put a scene break, not a chapter break, there.

Some areas make great spots to put chapter breaks in.  Every 10-12 pages, I look for interesting bits of dialogue (maybe the sleuth asks a suspect a leading question), someone making an announcement of some sort, a strong scene ending, a question the protagonist has posed or worried over, a moment of tension…and, sure, the typical cliffhanger moment: the moment the protagonist realizes someone is breaking into her house, the discovery of the dead body, the moment the killer confronts the sleuth…you know.

As a reader…yes, sometimes I do enjoy a good cliffhanger of a chapter ending.  If it’s used at the end of every chapter, then I feel like it’s totally contrived.  But sure—I love that moment where I decide that I just have to read the next chapter. 

And I ran across a nice post on cliffhangers on the Moody Writing blog by Mooderino:  Cliffhangers For Unscrupulous Writers.  :) It lists eleven types of cliffhangers to use.

Do you use cliffhangers often?  How long are your chapters or do they vary a lot in length?  Where are your favorite spots to insert chapter breaks?