Creative Writing Mystery And Crime 2017-11-28 00:00

How Stieg Larsson Kept his Readers Turning Pages

Steig Larsson covers

Did you read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? How about any other of Larsson's best-sellers? If you haven't, put them on your reading list. Because you'll be reading the master of making readers turn pages.

  1. The most powerful chapter ending I've ever read
  2. How to keep readers turning your pages
  3. Final thoughts

The most powerful chapter ending I've ever read

This might be a spoiler alert if you haven't read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so skip this section if you've yet to read it.

Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, is forced to perform oral sex on her government-appointed guardian before he will give her money to replace her broken laptop. Here are the last two paragraphs of Chapter 11 after the sexual assault takes place.

"'I need 10,000 kronor for my computer,' she said, precisely, as if she were continuing the conversation they were having before the interruption".

[Larsson is referring to the forced sex act as an interruption; pretty inflammatory, wouldn't you say?]

"Bjurman raised his eyebrows. Hard-nosed bitch. She really is fucking retarded. He handed her the cheque he had written when she was in the bathroom. This is better than a whore. She gets paid with her own money. He gave her an arrogant smile. Salander took the cheque and left."

You, the reader, are overwhelmed with shock and revulsion. How can Bjurman be so awful? Surely Salander won't let him get away with it?

You keep turning the pages, desperate to know if and how Salander will get out of her dire situation. You know that she is astonishingly clever and so her powerlessness in this situation is all the more perplexing. Each chapter leaves you with something to wonder and anticipate, so you keep turning the pages until you get that final resolution that wraps everything up.

How to keep readers turning your pages

First, and most obvious, is write an awesome story. But your great story isn't enough on its own. You need to crank up the tension and conflict. Let's look at a few techniques to help sustain the drama you've created and keep pages turning at each chapter ending.


Perhaps the most popular and widely used, especially in television and film, cliffhangers leave you guessing at the end of a scene or chapter, "What's going to happen next?"

It's the point in the book when you scream, "Oh no she didn't!" as the main character leaves you panting for more. And sometimes, you're hooked with a cliffhanger you didn't even realize was a cliffhanger.

Cliffhangers came about in the mid-1800s because many novels were sold in serials. So, to encourage readers to buy the next installment, each chapter of the serial would end with a cliffhanger.

Here are some excellent examples of cliffhangers used in other stories:

  • One Thousand and One Nights is the epitome of a cliffhanger. The king kills each one of his wives because he tires of them. So the current queen, thinking fast, tells him fascinating stories, each ending with a huge cliffhanger. The king comes back to her every night to hear the next story because he can't contain his curiosity. Thus, the queen lives.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone abounds with cliffhangers. In the ending to Chapter 3, Harry is counting down the seconds until he turns eleven at midnight. As he reaches one, "BOOM. The whole shack shivered and Harry sat bolt upright, staring at the door. Someone was outside, knocking to come in."

Break at a highly tense point

When you delay a scene resolution until the next chapter, your reader will stay up well past bedtime to keep reading. Here are ways to do this:

  • Put a gun on the wall. Famous advice from Anton Chekhov. Don't you want to find out who's going to use the gun?
  • Use a mysterious object. Say you're reading a book and at the end of Chapter 5, the main character walks into someone's house and sees a 4-foot depiction of Big Ben created from bread dough. What?!
  • Create uncertainty. End your chapter with, "At least that's what I thought." Now your reader will need to know, right?

Close with an unresolved climax

Since each chapter is a mini-story, end your chapter when you've reached the climax, but not the resolution. No reader can resist turning the page to find out how the conflict is resolved.

And even better, switch the story line in the next chapter. You could focus on a different character if you have multiple character arcs, or you could leap around chronologically, showing backstory.

Also, consider the emotional hook of an unresolved climax. Think about chapter endings that deal with loss, rejection, embarrassment, or longing. Don't you want to keep reading to see how the main character resolves these tensions?

Surprise your reader

It's always fun to drop a bomb at the end of a chapter. Or, another way is to have your character act in an unexpected way, or something happens unexpectedly.

  • She slapped his face and spat on his shoe. He was flummoxed. Angie never so much as killed an annoying insect. What just happened?
  • Suddenly in the front hall, the grandfather clock, silent these past 50 years, started ticking.
  • Into the room stepped the man who had been following her for days. Her heart pounded as she watched him reach behind his head and peel the skin from his face.

The Martian by Andy Weir uses an amazing surprise ending in one chapter. Consider this:

  • Everything went great right up to the explosion.

Come on, seriously? You can't stop reading now.

Final thoughts

Let's close with a masterful chapter ending by the indomitable Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. In Chapter 34, when Mr. Darcy suddenly shows up and says, "My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

After 30+ chapters reading about his disagreeableness in Elizabeth Bennet's eyes and he suddenly proposes to her? What?! Bet you didn't see that coming the first time you read the book. This is actually the turning point of the novel. And one of the most powerful chapter endings around.

What's your favorite chapter ending? Let us know in the comments below. Let's start a list of resources so we can all learn from creative and masterful endings.

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