Chapters are kind of like socks—something we writers and editors use ALL the time, but hardly ever think about. We all know that most novels are anywhere from 40,000 words to 140,000 words long, and we all know they’re broken up into units called “chapters.” But how often do we stop to ask why? How do you know you’re getting the most from a chapter?
We see this challenge in two parts: WHAT goes in the chapter, and HOW it goes in.
Let’s start with the juicy WHAT, first.
Chapters must give good, purposeful content that moves the story forward, that’s what! Unlike socks (ew), a chapter is something you should be able to sink your teeth into and get some real nutrients from it. Let’s consult the magic 8-ball of chapter content questions:
1) What is the main character’s goal in this chapter? How does that goal evolve? (I.e., is the main character thwarted, or does her goal get more urgent?) If there’s no goal, what would make a good goal for the chapter? It should be based on the character’s overall goal in the book! If her goal in the story is to find missing treasure, then perhaps the goal in this chapter is to first dig up the map, or confront the pirate who buried it.
2) What happens in this chapter? Is there action, and does it naturally lead to more action? If not, what new actions might lead to consequences that increase the urgency or difficulty of the goal? (Here’s the thing about goals: we should be making it more and more difficult to get to while simultaneously more and more seemingly necessary.) For instance, perhaps the pirate who buried the treasure has mysteriously vanished, and now your main character must solve the mystery of his disappearance! Or maybe the character’s mother plans to sell her home, and now she needs that treasure more than ever.
3) What new information is learned? (And why now?) If not much is learned, what “clue” might be inserted into this chapter to help set us up for the actions and reveals of future chapters?
4) Does the chapter seem urgent? Does it have tension? If not, what would make everything more pressing, more dire? What might be causing the tension to deflate? Watch out for moments where things are getting easier for the characters, where they seem to be fed the answers. Instead, there can be clues leading them forward, but there should also be obstacles keeping us interested! Remember that you are supposed to be making things more complex and challenging—that’s good narrative!
5) Unity of action. Is the action contained to one location? Does it focus on a single event? Is there a logic to where and why it comes to an end? If you close your eyes, can you easily picture this chapter? Can you describe the action in a sentence? (Think: It was Mrs. White, with the wrench, in the drawing room).
6) Is there causality from one chapter to the next? Remember that the goal in chapter A should lead directly to the goal in chapter B, either linearly (“I had to talk to character M and he told me to go talk to character N”) or because some obstacle encountered in Chapter A redefines the goal in Chapter B (“I got shot at while talking to character M and now I need to go to the hospital, which has replaced talking to character N as my immediate goal.”)
7) Where have we come from? Have the actions, revelations, and emotions of the chapter been properly “seeded” in previous chapters? If not, what would be a few specific places earlier in the book where we might get enough information or “clues” to prepare us for what happens now?
8) Where are we going? What are the elements of this chapter that you’d like to see “pay off” later in the book? In novels, unlike in life, everything must serve a purpose. Even small developments should have some impact on the plot—a.k.a. that development should cause something important to happen later, throw a wrench into the narrative making the goal harder to get to, or aid in a significant reveal later on. Otherwise, it’s simply filler!
Now on to the HOW!
That is, how are we building this baby? What’s the appropriate structure of a chapter? Get ready… we’re about to tell you how to win a game of writing Jenga.
1) Importance of Innies. Is the chapter “in” strong? Does the opening “hook” you from the beginning with a surprising or vivid first sentence/paragraph? Are you peeking around the doorframe or leaping right into the middle of the room? Variety is the key. Experiment with the three A’s of openers: Action, Atmosphere, or Attribution (i.e. dialogue that is quickly attributed to a character). Either start in the middle of a scene with a sound (Splat! The burger hit him in the face), or with vivid description and mood (A dark, feathery form swooped across the fading skyline like a streak of black ink across the gray) or in the midst of a conversation (“How dare you call me selfish! I’m only trying to help you,” Cindy said, raising an eyebrow at me.)
2) Outties, too! What about the chapter out? Are you left curious and intrigued by the final words? Does it make you want to open the next door? Does the image of the last line or final “beat” linger in your mind—is it vivid? Think the three C’s: you want either Cliffhanger, Conclusion, or Compelling Image.
3) Chapter Titles. What’s in a name? Sometimes we don’t need to know, and sometimes titles can add an important layer to the story or add a clue for a later payoff. What kind of mood might a title (or epigraph, or quote, or “dear diary,” or other title-starting convention) add to the overall read?
4) Size matters! How much of the story are you trying to fit into this chapter? Are you giving the reader enough to keep them interested, but not too much so they’re overwhelmed with information? Think of chapter lengths like kisses—long enough to get what you came for, but short enough to leave you wanting more.
There you have it: the 12 Tried and True rules of Chapter Know-How! We promise, it gets better with time—but no one ever said writing a novel was easy!
Paper Lantern Lit