Chapter Promises

I realized something a few days ago: whatever statement ends a chapter, that statement is a promise.

It’s not an exact rule, but in modern literature, the end of a chapter is interpreted as a promise (which I have explained here).  I’ve written many times about the importance of ending chapters with plot twists, but not all chapters have to end with plot twists– they end with promises.  You can choose what those promises are.  (Note: not all promises made in a book are at the ends of chapters.  You can make promises elsewhere as well.)

Think about it.  A chapter ends with the nation of bubble gum attacking.  If, in the next chapter, there was no mention of the bubble gum nation, nor was there any explanation about the freak attack, you wouldn’t be satisfied.  The chapter cut you off from the action, intentionally– what happened when the bubble gum nation attacked?  These are the same symptoms experienced when a promise is thrown aside without being fulfilled.

Think about what happens at a chapter break.  My biggest argument for chapter-ending plot twists is the chapter break is an invitation to put the book down– you want to keep the reader reading.  To combat that potential snack break, you add a hook to keep the reader interested.  And what is a hook?  It’s just a promise, to be fulfilled later.  Promises propel readers across chapter breaks just as well as they propel readers across the gap between books.

At first glance, however, it doesn’t seem like every chapter ending is a promise.  After all, not every chapter ends with a plot twist in every bestselling book.  Brandon Sanderson, in fact, intentionally leaves his chapter endings without plot twists because he writes such long books– plot twists work when the author wants to tear the reader through the book.  But sometimes, authors use other techniques.

For instance, there’s the feeling of impending doom or ominous statement at the end of a chapter.  This actually happens when a promise has been fulfilled just before.  Consider a chapter in which the protagonists have just finished planning their next move against the evil overlord:

“You know, this might work.”  I sat back and grinned up at the Twysdrn across from me.  “I think we actually have a chance.”

Susan tapped the hilt of her broadsword nervously.  “If we don’t die first.”

Chapter break!  What just happened?  They spent the chapter planning their next move, promising at the beginning they’d use their ingenuity and capabilities to create a workable plan.  The narrator’s dialogue expresses the fulfillment of the promise; they might actually have a chance.  Then Susan, the spoilsport, pipes up and brings the growing enthusiasm to a crashing halt.

Is that actually a promise?  After all, we just fulfilled a promise by giving them a plan.  They’re better off than before– what kind of a plot is this, if things keep getting happier and happier?

But they aren’t getting happier.  Susan made sure of that.  Even though the protagonists made some progress– necessary progress, for the story to unfold correctly– we know and they know the chances of pulling this off are really slim.  That isn’t quite a plot twist, since we knew that anyway, but it certainly is a promise.  Will the plan actually work?  Does the evil overlord have something nasty up his sleeve?  We don’t know yet, but we want to find out.  A promise has been made to pull us through the chapter break.

What about another kind of chapter ending, the “so on and so forth” kind of ending?  Another promise has just been fulfilled– an action scene, for instance, has just unfolded and come to a close.  The protagonist is at a heavy disadvantage, but barely manages to defeat all the antagonist’s minions.  He is injured, however, and cannot gloat in his victory; after the minions disappear into the shadows, he picks himself up, looks at his wound, and heads back to base.

What kind of a chapter ending is that?  It’s not ominous; it’s not a plot twist; it’s nothing.  Sure, he succeeded, but he’s injured– all the different elements have combined to form a neutral chapter ending.  Is that a promise too?  Of course it is, but it’s a slightly smaller promise.  It allows readers to get a sandwich if they want one, but they don’t have to; the promise is there, pulling them on.  But what was promised?

It’s actually pretty laughable.  That sort of ending just promises that the reader won’t have to slog through a description of the protagonist’s walk home.  If you’ve read Victor Hugo, you know how big a promise that is.  The other side of the promise is that when the chapter break ends, there will be something interesting enough to engage the reader again.  When the chapter break ends, something cool will happen.  It isn’t enough of a promise to rip the reader through the chapter break, but it’s certainly enough to allow the reader to continue if they wish.

Now think about the opposite.  What if a chapter ends without any of these options– what if it ends on a happy note?  I think it’s obvious what’s being promised there: awesomeness.  We see the character being awesome, being lucky, and the chapter ends.  The author has just promised more happy things to come!  Except… that’s not why anyone is reading the book.  They want to see a story of struggle, of someone succeeding who at the beginning was unable to succeed.  They want the journey, not the destination– and they definitely don’t want 300 pages of the main character being awesome, which is what the author just promised them.  That isn’t a hook.  It’s a notification that there’s no need for this book to exist, since everything is already right with the world.

I find this really interesting.  Of course, I find promises in general really interesting– they create all the satisfaction you get out of a story.  This concept isn’t just an interesting idea, though.  If a chapter ends with something, that thing will end up being a promise, whether you like it or not.  Look it over and decide for yourself whether that’s something you want to promise.

Did I miss any types of chapter endings?  Are there exceptions to this rule?

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47 thoughts on “Chapter Promises

  1. As soon as I started reading this post, I thought of Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz series and how many chapters he ends with a plot twist or a promise, then…makes us wait for the resolution to that by at least a page or two.

    Anyhow, I agree with everything you’ve said here and don’t really have anything to add. Don’t ask why I’m even bothering to comment if I don’t have anything to say, because I won’t have an answer.

    1. Yes. That was annoying, I suppose because it kept delaying the fulfillment of a promise. And where’s that altar of books from the first book?

      No, I appreciate the comment. Good to see you again.

      1. It was, a little bit. I was more amused than annoyed, but I could see how someone else would be annoyed by it. And… I have no clue. It’s not in the second or third book, that’s for sure. I still haven’t gotten my hands on the fourth one, so I have no clue if it’s there.

        Oh, good, then. Heh. Yeah, long time no see. 🙂

      2. Oh. Well, was it good? From what I’ve heard, he hasn’t even written the fifth book yet. Something about his publishing contract had only four books, so he has to wait for the contract to end or something before he can publish the fifth one. Plus, Sanderson has so many other projects he’s writing… I wouldn’t expect it for another few years.

  2. I love ending chapters with plot twists. But something I realized recently is that when you promise something at the end of a chapter with a promise that (in my case) your characters are going to get out of the woods, you have to do it right. You can’t cheat when you fulfill a promise.

      1. I mean that you can’t fulfill a promise with a coincidence or something that seems too easy. Or anything that doesn’t fit (I want to say that you can’t fulfill a promise with something cheesy, but that term doesn’t sound right). Which I guess is true for the whole book. But it really seemed to drive home when I had to solve this problem in a way that wouldn’t make the readers feel ripped off.

  3. Interesting… I made a resolution. While chapters must be at least ten pages (or possibly less, depending on the story), I will never close them without a cliffhanger or other way of making the chapter end less boring. 😛 And for a really good cliffie or plot twist I may forgo my ten-page starting line.

      1. Well, normally my documents have about 700 words per page. (It might be as low as 500 or as high as 850, depending on the paragraph length and dialogue.)
        And yes, it is. 🙂

      2. Approximately. But then, I write 150k novels. 😛 I have a manuscript that’s approximately 132k or so in handwriting that’s not very well written, but at least I know how to expand a story to amazing lengths. 😛

  4. For me, a book isn’t considered amazing until I realize I missed second dinner or lunch or stay up all night due to the great chapter endings. XD I never thought about those chapter endings with lesser promises that way until today. It’ll be fun to mess around with promises and torment people with chapter endings! Mwahahaha. 😀

    Cool post! 🙂

    Oh, a random comment that popped into my head–I’m still plowing through the Beyonders, and I’m noticing that Jason and Rachel (And everyone else, it seems) keep going on and on and on about how they’re probably all gonna die and how slim their chances are at defeating Maldor are. Sure, it’s pretty clear they’ve got a very small chance of pulling their quest thing off, but that’s clearly stated early on in the book. When would you draw the line on reminding the reader that the character’s chances at whatever they were doing being super slim/impossible? It’s annoying to be over-reminded. Would once or twice be sufficient? Also, I was thinking that it would honestly be better to show the reader, not tell them if you were going to repeat it. But then you’d have to still be careful about getting annoying/redundant. What do you think?

    1. Indeed. Go crazy.

      I think you hit the nail on the head. Show it, don’t tell it. If the characters are always saying, “Wow, this monster is really big– we’ll never kill it and get home for spaghetti dinner at mom’s house”, I think you’re doing it wrong. If you show the monster as a plot twist, and show how difficult it is to defeat, I think you’ll be fine– knowing what’s coming but being unable to stop it is pretty much the root of suspense. Show, don’t tell, I think in this case.

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