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I’ve been undergoing a bit of an epiphany recently as I plan out some new works and it’s gotten me thinking lately about a fundamental element of story structure and how I approach it (along with how others seem to approach it): the chapter.
Chapters are essential units of storytelling. Do not omit them or try to subvert the reader’s expectations. Chapters create structure which is valuable to both you and your reader.
We all seem to think we know what a chapter is. It’s a unit of story. We all seem to think we know where a chapter starts and ends. But how do we perhaps better define a chapter?
Here’s three main ideas that come to mind initially when thinking about what a chapter is:
Length: a chapter is, roughly speaking, no more than 3,500-4,000 words in length. Some may, because of the points below, be considerably shorter. But any longer (and this is from experience), you will start to fatigue the reader whose attention may start to wander from what is happening to when the chapter finishes so they can have a break (for many readers, like myself, are loathe to put a book down mid-chapter). Chapters in themselves are great units of story to consume: I’ll read three chapters before bed.. or I can fit in a couple of chapters before my sister calls.
Place and time: This is an approach I take myself: a chapter takes place in one place, at one particular time. It might be, say, four AM at Rachel’s house, and the chapter contains what happens then. If we then wish to switch to three-thirty PM at Roger’s corner shop, that abrupt change of time and place is an almost natural break point for a new chapter.
Point of view: One chapter may be from the perspective of the police offer chasing down a wanted criminal. The next, we may switch to the point of view of the criminal who is actually just trying to save his ill daughter. A great combination of both place and time and point of view is the Expanse series of science-fiction novels, whose approach from point of view to dedicate each chapter to the point of view of one of several characters works extremely effectively. I also feel that dedicating each chapter to a point of view is narratively less taxing on both the reader and author as both can be sure through whose eyes the events in a particular chapter take place.
Chapter breaks can be crucial in determining your initial act breaks. A chapter should contain a handful of “events”: aka things that happen. You start with a thing that leads to a character making a change that results in another thing they must then contend or deal with.
But that’s just the fundamentals. What else can a chapter be?
A chapter is a logical series of scenes that take place in one place and time through the perspective of a particular character: A chapter can indeed be one scene. Janes gets up and has breakfast. But you could have a series of scenes in which the stakes are upped. Jane gets up, not feeling well. She has a shower. Steve is waiting for breakfast. She emerges and discovers she is pregnant. How will she tell Steve?
A chapter deals with one particular “moment” or change to our characters or plot: As with length above, chapters where lots change can fatigue and confuse the reader if you keep throwing events at them. Chapter breaks are free, and you can make chapters short to adhere to this length (see James Patterson’s books which have lots of pacy, short chapters).
The plot needs to move in a meaningful way: A chapter of backstory is fine as long as this makes sense to the “now” our characters. A chapter describing the world you’re trying to build, without context and importantly without anything happening will bore the reader. A chapter should set up an event, or lead from one event to the next.
First and last lines are important: Your first line should be a hook that draws the reader in. You can do a great deal of work in setting up the situation of the chapter with an opening line or paragraph. The reader needs to be enticed to keep reading. Likewise, the end of the chapter should be a “cliffhanger” that makes the reader really want to continue reading. A chapter break is a good point for a reader to end their session, but what you really want is that just one more chapter… pull.
In my own approach, I treat chapters as we would scenes in a film: a logical series of events. I’ve read works from other authors where the chapters are 8,000 words long: my advice to them would be to break these huge, monolithic chapters into several (you can even put a different point of view chapter between them – think in movies how we mostly follow the goodies but break to see the baddies too) – breaking a big scene across three chapters you can end up being able to write more (three 3,500-word chapters is 10,500 words, which is considerably more than one 8,000 word chapter).
In my own work, I absolutely subscribe to the Expanse-style of dedicating one overall point of view per chapter, though I have made exceptions (especially close to a finale of a story). And indeed, some mid-chapter or inter-chapter interludes are fun to add in various context that may not necessarily fit into the formal chapter structure but are indeed chapters by another name.
Generally, my chapters take the following form:
A hook at the start to both reorient the reader from the previous chapter and entice them to read on.
Confined to one time and place, and the events of which are told through one character’s point of view.
A cliffhanger moment at the end to propel the reader to the next chapter.
Once you decide on how you will structure your chapters as part of your overall outline or plan then the events in which will fit in easily, but don’t be wedded to your initial outline (I recall The Thaw started as a very traditional three-act structure: each act was three groups of three chapters et cetera).
This may all come as no surprise to anyone though it’s a subject worth thinking about as laying the groundwork with a good understanding of the fundamentals will aid storytelling in a profound way before you add layers atop the foundations. What are your thoughts on how you lay out or plan chapters?
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