The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You
Terry Odell

scene endingsKeeping readers turning pages is a big thing for authors. Who doesn’t love a message saying “I stayed up all night reading your book”? I’m closing in on ‘the end’ of my first draft of my new book, Cruising Undercover. One of the things I look at on my read through is how I end my scenes. Will a reader be invested enough to turn the page? This is a topic that’s been covered here before, but even though I’m writing novel number thirty-something, it’s a piece of the craft I have to revisit every time. I thought a refresher or reminder might be worthwhile.

I’m a “self taught” author. That’s not to say I never took classes or workshops, but I was a Psychology major/Biology minor in college. I took the requisite English classes—the ones you couldn’t graduate without. I got decent grades, but I learned more about how to string words together in high school than in those few college classes. I never took a “How to Write” class. The writing courses I took were at conferences or online.

Writing began as a whim. Could I do it? When that moved from writing fan fiction to attempting an actual, original novel, I simply sat down and wrote. My first manuscript was my writing class. That manuscript was one long (140K words) puppy. And there were no chapter breaks. That’s not to say I was trying to avoid using chapter breaks. Rather, it was because I didn’t really know where to put them.

Readers look for reasons to put the book down. They have chores, or work. Kids. Schedules. Bedtimes. Chapter breaks are logical stopping points. Long before I started writing, I learned that if I was going to get any sleep, I had to stop reading mid-page.

A former critique partner referred to these endings as landings. Others have called them hooks.

What makes a reader say Okay, I’ll read a little longer?

Cliffhangers are a tried and true way to get readers to keep going. Leave the character with a dilemma. Jump cuts have been discussed here as well. Since most of my books have alternating POV characters, I often leave one character hanging while I shift to the other’s POV. Since these POV shifts mean each scene has to be a mini-chapter, they need their page-turning landings.

They don’t always have to be character in peril cliffhangers.

You can leave readers with a question they want answered. It could be a phone ringing or a knock at the door. (I use these too often in my first drafts and have to go back and mix things up. You don’t want your chapters to be monotonous or predictable.)

Short chapters, or short scenes are another way, which seems to be a current trend. I recall a workshop given by the late Barbara Parker who told of going to the pool in her apartment complex and asking a woman reading there if she liked the book. The answer, after a moment or two of reflecting, was, “Well, the chapters are short.”

**Personal note: I’m not fond of the super-short chapter. To me, it screams gimmick. Not only that, in a print book, it’s an extreme waste of paper. It’s as if the author or publisher is trying to meet a page count quota and all those short chapters make the book seem longer than the story actually is.

Back to my learning the craft of landings. When I went back and added breaks to my endless tome, I discovered that I’d ended every chapter or scene either with someone driving away or going to sleep. They were, to my still learning the craft mind, logical stopping places. But not exactly page-turners.

More often than not, the best exit was behind where I’d put my break. I’d gone too far, feeling the need to wrap things up. Sometimes a sentence or two was all I needed to cut—usually those extras leaned into telling rather than showing. Sometimes several paragraphs. Once I accepted that those words might still be good, they just weren’t good where they were sitting, it was easier to cut them. I hardly ever needed them, but I felt better knowing that hadn’t been destroyed.

An example of a scene ending from a very early version of what ended up becoming Finding Sarah:
Sarah didn’t care; she cried great gulping sobs until exhaustion overcame her and she slept.

A better version of the ‘end with bedtime’ scenario adds a question:
As she drifted off, she heard a man’s voice from the main house. Had Jeffrey come home?

Here are a couple of examples of “non-cliffhanger, non-action-filled” chapter endings:

From Forgotten in Death, by JD Robb:
Kneeling, she pulled off the work gloves, then resealed her hands. And took a closer look at her second and third victims of the morning.

From A Thousand Bones, by P.J. Parrish
He took another drag on his Camel. “Maybe I will have something else for you as well.”
“What?” Joe asked.
He smiled. “A little surprise.”

What about you TKZ peeps? Do you struggle with ending scenes and chapters? Do you tend to overwrite? What tips can you offer for keeping readers turning pages?

Available Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.




Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

25 thoughts on “The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

  1. ” the best exit was behind where I’d put my break. I’d gone too far, feeling the need to wrap things up.”

    Great observations, Terry. Also loved the title and illustration for this post. It nailed the subject perfectly.

    Going through a door is another way to end a chapter. It leaves the reader wondering what the character will find on the other side. Or a different character comes IN the door to shake up the scene.

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one concerned about the paper wasted with super-short chapters. Occasionally I use a one or two page chapter for dramatic impact but when overdone, it’s gimmicky.

    • Thanks, Debbie. Characters entering or exiting also raise questions for the reader.
      At least those short short chapters aren’t “wasteful” in ebooks. 🙂
      Have a good day.

  2. It’s interesting that you raise this topic now, Terry. I just finished watching the second episode of Bosch:Legacy and was thinking of how quickly it moves. It doesn’t spend a lot of time on any particular character. There’s Bosch chasing down a lead. Boom. There’s Maddy on patrol. Boom. There’s Mo (who deserves a series of his own!) planting a tracker on a high-end automobile. Boom. And so it goes. It’s like Ohio weather. If you don’t like it, wait a minute and it will change. Novel writing is somewhat different, but the principle is the same.

    Thanks, Terry. Hope you’re having a great week!

    • We’ve been watching Bosch: Legacy as well. In a book, those would be POV switches, which also keep readers turning pages, assuming they like the different threads. The Hubster just gave up on a book because the author was following three different character threads, and he didn’t care about what was going on with them.
      One problem with shifting POV characters/threads is making sure the readers don’t forget what what happening in the previous scene(s). At least it’s a problem for me, and I’m WRITING the dang thing.
      Colorado weather sounds a lot like yours. We have four seasons up here, often all in one day.

    • I was thinking about the Bosch series when I read Terry’s post. They do a great job of switching from one plot line to another so the viewer is always coming back for more.

  3. The last stage of the revision process for me is the polish. And the last bit of polishing is on scene or chapter endings. A simple trick is to look at your endings and see if you can cut the last few lines. It’s amazing how often this creates forward momentum.

    • Exactly, JSB. That exit is often behind you. 🙂
      I try for a decent ‘landing’ on the first pass, but I don’t agonize over it. Sometimes my crit partners flag a better place to move on, but I also consider that work to be done in the editing/polishing passes.

  4. Wonderful post, Terry. The “unanswered-question” ending to a scene is very important. I have been “taught” by my beta readers, telling me they like them every time I use one, suggesting I add one when I’ve left a chapter/scene without one. They know the technique and what I’m doing, but they still want them.

    I include an idea for a cliffhanger/unanswered question in my outline (actually the end of scene outcome) . And I often find the idea for that ending from the next chapter/scene.

    Thanks for the ideas and discussion. I hope your week is filled with good surprises.

  5. I’m also not a fan of short (not just super-short) chapters. Granted, I suppose genre may impact length of chapters too, and an occasional exception is fine, and we could all cite examples of times where it worked brilliantly. But to me, too many short chapters makes a story seem choppy & unappealing. When I read, I want to escape and immerse, and short, choppy chapters just remind me of today’s “Squirrel! Squirrel!” mentality–the exact thing I’m trying to escape from.

    I understand that one of the arguments *for* short chapters is to make it easy for readers who may be reading in limited amounts of time. But my goodness–if you’re using an e-reader, you simply pick up on the page where you left off. If you’re reading a print book, there’s a good old fashioned book mark, so that argument doesn’t work for me. Besides which, if the author has written an appealing book, the reader is going to make extra time in their schedule to finish that chapter no matter the length.

    • Thanks, BK. I agree that readers will make or find the time to read a book that’s hooked them. The short chapter rationale, I think is for those who say, “Oh, I can read one more chapter because it’s only another 3 pages” and then another, and another.
      That’s why I generally stop mid page rather than at a chapter ending because I don’t want to be up all night–assuming the author has mastered the page-turning “exit.”

  6. Another insightful post, Terry. Ending a scene with an emotional dilemma or question is one of my favorite ways to have a little mini-cliffhanger that isn’t physical. Scene outcomes keep the reader turning pages as well.

    For instance, if an amateur sleuth needs information from a witness, a simple “Yes they get it” doesn’t really justify the scene, nor does it propel the narrative and thus the reader forward. However, a “Yes, but then X” as an outcome does. “No they didn’t get what they wanted from talking to the witness” leaves the quandary in front of them but having the outcome be “No, and furthermore Y happens” can raise tension, complicate things, even provide a turn in the plot, which again will keep the reader reading.

    Thanks for another great post! Have a wonderful day!

    • Thanks for sharing, Dale
      The “Yes But” is an excellent way to increase conflict and tension, sometimes better than “No” because the character gets what they wanted, but the strings attached push them down a different path.

  7. Great information, Terry. I love the title you gave to this.

    Like you, my first “writing course” was my first novel. I think there’s a natural tendency to want to wrap things up at the end of a chapter rather than leaving something hanging. But it robs the reader of that sense of anticipation.

    The chapters in my books are relatively short — averaging about one thousand words. I don’t do it consciously; it just seems like the best place to break to a new chapter. Quite a few people have mentioned that they like the short chapters, but no one has expressed an interest in having longer ones.

    • I’d say my chapters are “as long as they need to be.” I don’t pay a lot of attention unless one seems very short–or very long. Since my romantic suspense chapters are (mostly) all two scenes, one for each POV character, they tend to run between 2 and 2.5K words.

  8. If the reader doesn’t care for your character and their goal, no amount page-turner gimmicks will work. And if it’s only an intellectual puzzle like some mysteries, it will be tossed away like a crossword puzzle book when the brain gets tired. Grab them by the heartstrings, instead, and that book will not be tossed away.

    I not only use pacing and big what-happens-next moments, but what is called interlocking questions. I keep offering questions, big and small, and as some are answered, others are asked. It’s a chain of big and small questions that pull the reader through the novel in a rush to figure out the answers.

    If anyone is interested, I have a blog on the subject. The link to my sample chapters no longer works since I shut down my domain site.

    • Very true, Marilynn, as evidenced by the Hubster who abandoned his most recent read. Thanks for the link.

  9. A good ‘out’ is a major factor in maintaining momentum. I’m more for random length chapters than short ones. If the reader gets used to 2000 words, a shorter chapter can shake them up a bit, especially if they turn a page and encounter a major plot twist for an out. Some novels can use a little unpredictability; some can’t.

    • A very common question from new and aspiring authors is “How long should a chapter be.” One answer I recall from an author was “As long as a cat’s tail” which is as long as it needs to be. I don’t consciously or deliberately mix things up, but I have longer and shorter scenes and chapters.
      I read something about book formatting recently that said (with regard to print books) “Never end a page with a period. Make the reader turn the page to finish the sentence.”

      • When I serialized Sorcerer of Deathbird Mountain, I found hooks at the end of 80% of the episodes. I went back and ended most of the others with a ❓

  10. Yep. I call them “Kickers.” Because every scene ending needs to kick the reader into the next one. My current WIP will have >100 scenes. Every one will have a kicker.

  11. I seem to be the odd one out here. I like short chapters. I like both reading and writing them. I tend to keep my chapters between 5 and 6 pages on average. A ten-page chapter is a long one for me. They do vary, of course. Some as few as three pages and some the ten-pager. But the five-to-six page chapter seems just right for me. My first book, I have been told more than once, is a real page-turner. I’m still waiting for reviews to come in on my newly-released sequel. Of course, no one has ever heard of me, so maybe I should make my chapters longer. 🙂

    • Whatever chapter length works for you is the right one. There’s no wrong way to do it (although I think a book with no breaks wouldn’t work for me). Thanks for stopping by.

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