Dramatic Tension Part 2: Chapter Breaks

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re reading a good book, and you tell yourself, “Okay, it’s getting late, I really need to stop reading at the end of this chapter.” But then you get to the end of the chapter, and AAAAH! It ends with some incredible twist, and you have to keep reading. Next thing you know, it’s 3 AM, and you’re not even sorry.

The weird part is, if the author had done a chapter break at the part where you thought “I really need to go to bed” instead of at the part where you went AAAAAH, you probably would have been able to put the book down. Even if all the words were exactly the same, with only the chapter breaks in different places, you would have had less of a feeling of incredible dramatic tension propelling you through the story and forcing you to read into the wee hours.

It’s very tempting to end chapters at a natural break point. It seems intuitive to look for a scene break, where you already have some white space or a few stars, and stick a chapter break there. But actually, some of the best chapter breaks for jacking up dramatic tension come right in the middle of a scene.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a scene where your heroine gets into her car, and then suddenly a zombie who was lurking in the back seat attacks her, and she bludgeons him to a pulp with her laptop bag. You could put in a chapter break at the end of the scene, after she’s freaked out a bit, dumped the dead zombie in a ditch, and driven off to find her friends and tell them what happened. Or you could break when the cold, rotten hands of the zombie close around her neck from the backseat. I know which chapter ending would give me no choice but to keep reading.

Your dramatic tension can’t always be spiked in the red throughout the whole book. Your readers need chances to catch their breath. But if you give them those chances at the end of a chapter, they’ll feel like they can put the book down. If you give them breathing room in the middle of a chapter, and then cut to a commercial (er, chapter break) right at the big twist or most exciting part, they’ll never lose that momentum.

Published by Melissa Caruso

Fantasy author of the Swords & Fire trilogy: THE TETHERED MAGE (Orbit, 2017), THE DEFIANT HEIR (Orbit, 2018), and THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (Orbit, 2019), as well as the Rooks and Ruin trilogy, beginning with THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (Orbit, 2020). Melissa's debut, THE TETHERED MAGE, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2017. Melissa loves tea, adventure, and the great outdoors, and has been known to swordfight in ballgowns. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two superlative daughters, and assorted pets. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds.

2 thoughts on “Dramatic Tension Part 2: Chapter Breaks

  1. Here’s the problem I hit when I try to do that: if I try to end a scene on a High Tension Moment, that often gets in the way of an emotional reaction. The reaction is usually lower-tension than the event, after all, so the Tension Hook requires a break before the emotional reaction. And you know how it is with MORE FEELS. What’s your approach to this problem?


    1. I don’t end the SCENE at the High Tension Moment. I break the chapter there. The scene continues smoothly in the next chapter.
      If you’re writing short stories or another non-chaptered format, the closest you can probably come to using this trick is making sure to put in some really short paragraphs at those moments, like even one line paragraphs, to give some white space for the reader to gasp in and freeze the moment.
      I actually was revising recently and found some lines or moments that could be dramatic buried in paragraphs, and was surprised by how much more effective they were if I dug them out with paragraph breaks and let them stand on their own a bit.
      But yeah, not so much with the chapter breaks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: