As readers, we’ve all come to the end of a chapter and gaped at the page break, cursing the author for the hook he’s planted there. We glance at the clock and calculate the number of hours before the alarm goes off and decide whether or not it’s worth giving up a little more sleep to find out what happens next in the story.
As writers, it’s important to plant those hooks to keep pulling the reader into the story. We don’t want the reader to put the book down. We’re insecure and we know that once the reader puts the book down, she may never bother to pick it up again. Since we can’t coat the book cover in Superglue, we have to metaphorically keep the reader’s mind glued to the inside of the book.
A good way to do that is with hooks at the end of each chapter. You want to provide some kind of cliffhanger ending to your chapter so the reader will come back. And, if you’re good, you can even be a little mean, not allowing your reader to simply read the first paragraph of the next chapter to see what happens.
One of the best examples of this technique comes from Stephen King in his early novel The Shining. For a good part of the book we’ve known that young Danny Torrance is going to enter Room 217 of the haunted Overlook Hotel. Finally, the little psychic gets the key and goes to the room. He pushes open the door and, pulls back the shower curtain, finds the dead woman, is about to turn away and then her hands close on his throat … End of chapter. We turn the page, eager to see what happens to Danny and the next chapter isn’t even about Danny. We shriek in frustration, look at the alarm clock, and blaze through that next chapter to get to the one where we find out what happened to Danny.
So, how do you do this? Do you just cut the action right in the middle? Nope. Each chapter needs to have something happen in it. Usually, every chapter will contain one complete scene. The best way to hook the reader is to offer that complete scene, then begin a new one. But you can’t just stop. There has to be a logical break. For me, this is usually a feeling … I just know this is a good place to end the chapter. Maybe I’m right, and maybe not.
For instance, in my novella Seven Days in Benevolence, Dena, the recently divorced mother with two little girls, returns to her new (haunted) home to find her ex-husband’s car in the drive. Danny, the ex, has come to take the daughters for his weekend visitation. But first, the family was going to reunite for dinner. Assuming Danny found a way to get in the house, Dena leaves the girls in the car to go inside.
Danny’s body was sitting in a chair beside the dining table. His arms hung at his sides, pools of blood staining the carpet beneath each hand, wounds like laughing mouths gaping in both wrists.
“What do you want, Mommy? Is Daddy ready to go?”
Dena swung around and found Rebecca standing in the middle of the living room, holding Brianna by the hand.
“I told you to wait in the car,” Dena said, her voice trembling. “What are you doing in here?”
“I heard you calling us,” Rebecca answered. “You yelled at us to come inside and see Daddy. Where is he?”
“I … I didn’t call you,” Dena said. “We have to get out of here.”
The chapter ends there. Hopefully, the reader wants to know what happens next and feels like she just has to read the next chapter to find out.
Here’s another example, this time from Murdered by Human Wolves. Thomas, seemingly, is trying to convince Katherine to come to the creek so Katherine can attempt to shame her friend, Elise, into ending her affair with Thomas’s cousin, Luther.
“She was not a hard one to convince,” Thomas said. “But maybe you could talk her into mending her ways.”
“I tried that yesterday.”
“She will be meeting with Luther again tonight. Maybe if you were there and interrupted them she would see the shame you think she should feel for what she is doing.” He arched his eyebrows as he spoke and Katherine realized for the first time that he really had only one long, bushy brow that spread over both eyes and the bridge of his thin nose.
“Do you really think it would help?”
“I think if anyone can change her mind, it is her friend Katherine who she talks about so much,” Thomas said.
Katherine thought about it for a moment, calculating whether she could sneak out of her parents’ house, whether she dared. It’s for Elise. To save Elise. “Where do they meet?”
This time, as in King’s The Shining, the following chapter is from the point of view of completely different characters.
You can’t make your hooks too obvious. If your chapters don’t contain full scenes, but only setups for the hooks, you’re probably just going to make your reader angry. As in fishing, the hook should be invisible – wrapped in bait – at least until the reader is caught on it. Do it wrong and you’ll be seen as a clumsy amateur.
Do it right, though, and your reader will go to work the next day bleary-eyed. When co-workers ask what’s wrong, she’ll tell them how she was reading your book … and give you the coveted, “I couldn’t put it down!” review. Next to a royalty payment, that’s about as sweet as it gets for any writer.