This blog post turned into a bit of a mammoth one, so I’ve split it into two posts for easier reading. Part one looks at chapter construction and transition, and part two will cover other ways to construct your novel (aside from using chapters), chapter titles / beginnings, and prologues and epilogues. Part two will be published in the next week, so keep an eye on my blog so you don’t miss out.
One facet of writing that doesn’t get talked about very much is the structural format on the page. I don’t mean the structure of the story – three act versus five act, for instance – but how you break down a written story into scenes, paragraphs and other divisions.
The way in which this is done can have quite an effect on the reading experience. Length of chapters can either entice or dissuade the reader to continue. Too long and they might leave the next chapter until later; too short and you have more breaks to give the reader the opportunity of stopping.
Choosing how to format and present your work is as important as the tone, style and quality of the words themselves. With Lorgar, my latest novel, I chose a very specific presentation style, that of short scenes numbered in the theme of a biblical annotation – being Book, Chapter and Verse. Hence the story starts at 1-1-1, the second scene is 1-1-2, the next chapter is headed 1-2-1, 1-2-2 and so forth. It gives the story a very deliberate style, especially contrasted with the non-numbered intercut chapters that frame the narrative.
I’m just going to talk about novella and novel-length works generally, although most of the principles can be applied to shorter works too, in the form of scenes and section breaks rather than chapters.The Basics
Some writers, like Terry Pratchett, eschew the use of chapters. This is fine, but it doesn’t eliminate the need to think about presentational structure. I’ve tried a couple of times to write chapterless books in the past but the editors have asked me to present the book in a more traditional format. Probably for the best…
The default setting for a modern novel is to break it into chapters, each likely between 2,000-4,000 words. This gives roughly 40-50 chapters in a typical genre novel (which tend towards the longer side compared to ‘literary’ books, from about 80,000 up to 150,000 words, with the 100k mark being popular with agents and editors).
Unless you have a good reason not to arrange your novel like this, then chapters is the way to go. How long they should be is another issue. You need to keep in mind that each chapter is a sub-narrative with its own beginning, middle and end. For an idea of how this might work, have a look at my post on writing scenes. A chapter is therefore one or more scenes with its own structure, introducing, developing and then concluding an idea.
In my earliest synopses I used to plan chapters in advance to help me get the right amount of story into the commissioned word count. Over time, my experience grew and my planning got vaguer so that now I find that it holds me back if my plan is overly rigid in format. Sometimes in the writing of it, a chapter ends up being seven or eight thousand words long, and other times it might only amount to a thousand words.
With this in mind, you can see the shape of your story much better. How you choose to divide your chapters then becomes a more considered affair than simply stopping when reaching an arbitrary length.
The final lines of a chapter and the start of the next are as important as the opening and closing of the whole novel. Whether left elated or deflated, content or expectant, each scene and chapter break is a milestone on the journey of the story – a milestone you control and should think about carefully.Point of View
An obvious use of chapters is to signify a change in character viewpoint. George R R Martin does this relentlessly. It doesn’t have to be done in quite such a fashion, different points of view can comfortably sit next to each other within a chapter (or even within a scene if you are writing in that style). However, a chapter or scene change gives you the opportunity to switch POV.
Changing point of view between chapters means that you need to ensure the reader knows where and who they are with right from the outset of the next. If they are following one character on one page they need to know they are following someone else on the next.
The same applies when keeping point of view but making a chronological leap. It is possible to prime the reader with the end of the previous chapter, by referencing what is about to happen. For instance, if a chapter ends with the characters boarding a rocket to Mars and the next begins with them disembarking, you don’t have to explain that they have arrived at Mars. (On the other hand, if they haven’t landed on Mars you better make it obvious pretty damn quick!)
Other reasons for chapter breaks are leaps in time and geography. Rather than drag our reader through a laborious but uneventful procession from one place to another, a chapter break allows us to move the focus either in time or space (or both!). I bet you didn’t realise you controlled your very own literary TARDIS.Pacing
As to where these breaks should come, that’s a bit more of an arcane art than a science. A lot of writers, particularly those that work with scripts, talk about Story Beats. These are the rhythm of the action and plot, which carries the reader (in this case) through the story. They are like stepping stones from the beginning to the end, each moving the narrative onward. Not every chapter is a story beat as such, but it should be part of the build up or conclusion of one.
This is the reason I have adopted a more organic approach to my presentation process. I sometimes find that in the act of writing a scene it ends slightly differently from where I set out, or originally intended. If it’s part of the beat, this can lead to some awkward pacing issues, which is compounded if that scene appears in a middle of a chapter when it shouldn’t (or at the end, sometimes).
Chapter breaks can be thought of as:
• Beginnings – setting up expectation of what is to come. One example (often overused) is the cliffhanger ending. Some chapter endings might feel like endings but are in fact beginnings. They conclude a particular episode, but actually they serve to introduce a broader, longer beat or plot arc.
• Transitions – moving the beat toward its end via a smaller milestone. For instance, the protagonist has not yet had the required revelatory moment, but is put into a position to do so. Depending on how fast-paced and densely plotted your story is, you might not have any transitional chapter endings, it’s all bang-bang-bang from one beat to the next. The Beast Must Die is very much in this mould, with almost no downtime between chapters.
• Conclusions – the chapter ends with the delivery of the beat. This is where it can go wrong. If you have concluded the story beat, don’t obscure it by rushing in to the next, and definitely not in some misguided attempt to create false expectation with a cliffhanger. The end of the chapter is significant, and what it signifies is that a chunk of story has ended and another is about to start. Readers understand this, even if they don’t realise it.
The other thing about this is to be aware of where you are in your story. Beats and pacing vary, and so to can chapter lengths. You might need to introduce several characters from quite disparate sources at the beginning, jumping from one to the other in a series of short chapters. Conversely, the end of a novel might be contained within a single longer chapter. Be alert to whatever suits the flow.
Part two will be published in the next week, so keep an eye on my blog so you don’t miss out.
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