Disaster and Dilemma, How to End a Chapter and Increase Pacing

August 1, 2011 | Writing Craft, Writing Tips, Scenes, Pacing | 2 comments

How to end a chapter? What’s the big deal? When everything is all tied up, you move on, right? No. In fact, everything shouldn’t be “all tied up” until the very end. In the body of your story, there should never be a place where everything is 100% good. Sure, the characters can think things are good, but the readers? The readers need to know better. If you want a fast-paced book or even just a book that doesn’t drag, knowing how to end a chapter is imperative.

When deciding how to end a chapter, what is the biggest mistake writers make?

Being too easy on their character and their readers. (This is actually true throughout writing the book, but it is especially true for endings of scenes and chapters.)

To write a successful page-turner of a book with pacing that makes people want to read and KEEP reading you can’t be nice.

Nice is boring. Nice does not help the pacing of your book. It slows the pacing, a lot.

You have to torture your characters, never letting things go too well for them and in the process, you have to torture your readers, never letting them settle in and think “Oh, good everything is fine now.” because if you do, they will set down that book and NOT PICK IT BACK UP.how to end a chapter scene disaster dilemma increase pacing

Why bother? Everything is fine. Story over–never mind that extra 150 pages left to be read.

This little mandate to torture is never truer than at the end of a chapter or the end of a scene. These obvious breaks in your story are the easiest places for a reader to put down your book and walk away, forever.

How do you keep them from folding over that page and leaving your characters behind? By embracing two lovely little devices known as Disaster and Dilemma.

How to end a chapter or scene?  Choice One: Disaster.

What is Disaster in writing?

Disaster is just that. A disaster. Maybe not the worst thing that could happen but something pretty darn bad. Something bad enough, the reader will want to know what happens next. OMG, I just cut off my foot. End scene!

Who is going to stop reading there? He CUT OFF his foot! How is he going to get out of that?

Disaster in writing defined: Your character entered the scene with a goal, but at the end of that scene finds disaster. He doesn’t get the goal he set out with, or he loses something else important to him. Something happens that blocks whatever easy route your character might have chosen. He has to keep moving if he wants to achieve his goal (and he better want to achieve that goal), and your reader is going to want to know how that character is going to do that now. So, the reader keeps reading.

How to end a chapter or scene?  Choice two: Dilemma.

What is Dilemma in writing?

Dilemma is more of a choice–the disaster has already happened, but what to do about it? The water is rising around us. (This would be the disaster.) Do I save the dog or save the will that proves I own the house I’ve been fighting to get? End scene!

Dilemma is part of the character working things out and deciding on that next move to get to his goal. If the decision is a hard one, it can make for a great hook to keep readers reading.

Examples of both of disaster and dilemma from books on my bookshelf:

Haven by Kristi Cook (Chapter 3, ending scene)
“My head was buzzing, my palms suddenly damp. What the holy hell had just happened? I was losing my mind, hearing voices. And it wasn’t just any voice—it had been Aidan’s. Somehow he knew my secret.” Disaster!

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (Chapter 24, ending scene)
“‘What had happened–?’ Mary echoed. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You have to have pulled her out,’ Badri said. ‘She’s not in 1320. She’s in 1348.'” Disaster! (Revealing character was sent to the wrong year–was sent by mistake to the time of the Black Plague.)

Savannah Breeze by Mary Kay Andrews (Chapter 29, ending scene)
“I hung up the phone and banged my head on the tabletop. How had I dragged them into this mess? And how was I going to make it right again?” Dilemma!

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (Bug Eyes, ending scene)
“Her only way home was to betray her friend.” Dilemma and Disaster!

So there you have it, how to end a chapter and how to end a scene. Check now…have you left your characters standing on the cliff with a herd of buffalo racing toward them? Or did you tuck them snugly into their beds, never to be read again?

Read more on how to write a scene.


Lori Devoti is the multi-published author of romantic comedy, paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Look for her workshops at Write by the Lake (DCS University of Wisconsin), at RWA conferences and meetings, and here at the How To Write Shop. For more information, visit her website.


  1. A Writer

    Hey..nice post! So basically the idea is to always end a scene with a question.

  2. J.L.S.

    Ah so thats why the new caper is like more then the old one. She melted a city to the ground, wracked with guilt, then boom boom returning solders return. She takes off they chase. End chapter 1. :) Sneaky chapter 1 was hiding out as s dream sequence for two years. Gah. Revisions are your best friend.


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