Recently, I’ve been surprised by the number of questions I’ve gotten pertaining to the structure of a chapter. I’ve already gone over how to write an awesome first chapter, but I had a few people (okay, maybe one) asking about how to break your novel down to the chapter level.
Want to hear my beautiful voice? Watch the accompanying video below and see if you catch me making any mistakes as you read along!
No matter what your method of writing or outlining (pantser, snowflake method, posterboard outlining, whatever!) I have some tips that I think you’ll find particularly useful!
First up, let’s go over some important concepts.
Good writing should 1) hook the reader, and 2) keep the reader hooked. It’s as simple as that. Fiction writing may span many genres, but these two things are always constant. Your novel could be a love-story or it could be a political thriller, but to be good writing, you have to keep the reader flipping those pages.
Since I’ve already talked about hooking the reader in the first chapter, let’s talk about keeping them hooked.
In this video, I’ve talked about how to structure and outline your story. I also talked about how the action in a novel should rise and fall (modeling the 3-act structure). It is possible to fatigue your reader, so a balance must always be maintained from having too much action or too much emotion. This balance should also be applied loosely to the chapter level.
Why loosely? On a larger scale, some chapters will just be more exciting than others – there’ll be more tension or mysteries or drama. But on a microscopic level, even those chapters don’t stay at full throttle action for too long. Even if it’s the climax of the book, there might be a drop in action when the protagonist thinks he’s lost it all, that he’s just going to give up. At this point, your character is at a low, no longer feeling empowered or capable, switching to an emotional state.
In the end, your reader needs to go on an action/emotional merry-go-round, and shouldn’t stay in one spot for too long. Stopping on those emotions for too long creates fatigue. And that’s no beuno.
Now that we understand what good writing is, how can we apply that to breaking up our chapters?
If you’ve already outlined your novel by scenes, but you just aren’t sure where to section off those scenes, try to find an emotional pattern in your outline. You don’t ever want to end a chapter at a dull moment, but rather it should almost feel like a very dramatic pause.
For instance, if your character gets surrounded by a group of blood thirsty vampires and has to Buffy them all to death, end the chapter right when the vampires surround her! This is a moment when there’s brand new tension in your novel, and a brand new reason for your audience to keep reading.
Not an outliner? Then good luck, because I don’t have any tips for you.
Just kidding! Still try to look for patterns, only this time you’ll be looking as you write. You might have to write a few scenes and then go back to see if you can find an appropriate time to cut off the chapter and start a new one. Or you might have that moment when you’re writing where you just know that it’s a freaking amazing place to end your chapter.
What if you don’t get that feeling, though? Keep writing! If your story line has any life to it, you’ll find an issue to stop on or a problem reveal to capitalize on.
Read through your manuscript and pick out any moments that would make your reader’s eyes bug with wonder/fear/love/any-other-emotion-we-crazy-readers-have. That should be where you end your chapter.
Chapters should end with something to entice the reader to keep going. How many of you have said “Just one more chapter” at some point in your life? Everyone! (I hope…otherwise we might need a book intervention for a few of you).
I already mentioned stopping the chapter on a reveal or the introduction to a problem, but what else should the ending do?
There needs to be some sense of resolution for every chapter, meaning the characters have addressed whatever issue is plaguing them in that particular chapter.
It may be small, in fact in most instances it is, but we need to feel like the main character is making some progress. Something is moving the character forward. That character might actually be taking two steps back for every one step forward, but they’re still trying to make progress.
Your chapters needs to show some of that progress, but the placement of that feeling of resolution is often in the middle of the chapter (for novels with action in particular). The beginning of the chapter shows your character struggling through a new problem, the middle hints toward a resolution of that problem and the ending of your chapter creates a brand new or slightly different issue.
The end of your chapter could very well decide whether or not that reader sets your book down and goes to sleep, or stays up into the late A.M. finding out what happens next.
This is your opportunity to snag ’em really good.
Try to section your chapters off by problems. Look for flags where a big problem has just been introduced – one that changes the game. This issue should end up being some kind of hurdle for your protagonist, something that you’ll address in the chapters that follow.
This problem can be a personal one, where the character reveals something about them that could hinder the accomplishment of their goals; or a physical one, where maybe their vehicle breaks down or they get arrested by the cops.
When ending your chapter with a problem, the reader will question how your character will respond or wonder what that means for the story. It creates interest and, most importantly, this will capture that JOMC (Just One More Chapter…I know, it’s cheesy) effect we’re all looking for.
You should try your darndest to never end your chapter with a resolution. If you end your chapter with your character peacefully falling asleep, then guess what your reader will be tempted to do? Instead of staying up late to read your novel, they’ll be catching some zZzZ’s themselves.
Another flag you can end a chapter on can be the reveal of some major piece of information. Something that makes the reader stop, look around with wide eyes, and try to tell anything with ears what the hell just happened in this story.
This can be a character’s purpose for being involved in the story, a plot twist, or a huge secret someone’s been desperate to keep. Reveals can done through dialogue or narrative, so don’t be afraid to get creative with it!
Be careful, though: these big chapter endings require a lot of build up, sometimes novel-length build up. So be cautious using this type of ending too much, as the anticipation won’t have time to properly build up. When done correctly, these are the best types of page-turners and can light a fire under the readers butt to keep going.
My favorite example of this: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Professor Snape’s famous “Always” quote just about made my heart stop. That was the holy mega mother reveal of all time, sending me on a rampage throughout the house repeating “Oh my god” over and over again as my heart bled all over the floor.
Okay, that was a colorful picture. Moving on!
Perhaps the easiest way to break up chapters is by point of view. It’s typically not a good idea to bounce from one character to another within the same chapter as it can get rather confusing for your reader.
This is how my current manuscript is broken down, but I still had to consider a few things when organizing my chapters.
If you have more than one protagonist, you don’t want to spend too long on one particular character. Make sure to hop evenly between them if you can but it doesn’t have to be word for word even. There’s some instances where you can juggle the action/emotion balance between your characters.
For example, if a female character has just fallen into a pit of poisonous snakes with no hope for escape, pause her story for a minute. In the meantime, your second protagonist is on the hunt for her location, desperate to find her. This builds tension in your novel through dramatic irony – the reader knows something the second character doesn’t and is yelling at the book like a crazy person to get there in time.
A clever balance in your chapters can take your novel from okay to absolutely, maddeningly and epicly awesome. And what writer doesn’t want that?
That’s all the advice I have for now!
When outlining my novels, I don’t worry about chapters until after my outline is completely finished. Then I worry about where to section off each chapter. A lot of times, new writers can get stuck on figuring out what word count is appropriate or finding hard and fast guide to breaking down your chapters. It’s different for everyone, and that shouldn’t be a bad thing. You should feel a sense of creative freedom that you’re able to decide what’s best for your own story.
I hope you enjoyed this post! If you’ve got any tips of your own to share, I would love to hear them!