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3 Things to Consider When Determining Chapter Breaks
Chapter breaks signify to the reader that you’re ending one scene and beginning another. They can help point-of-view switches and flashbacks feel less jarring to the reading experience and can help build excitement and suspense. Here are three things to consider when determining chapter breaks or your novel:
- Genre: The type of writing you’re doing will generally dictate chapter length. In thrillers, you want to pull your reader in quickly with short, action-filled chapters. If your story moves at a slower pace, you may want longer chapters. In nonfiction books, chapter breaks can signify a change of topic, whereas romance novels sometimes use chapter breaks to jump back and forth between characters’ perspectives. Check out some books in your genre and see how long the average chapter is. How does your chapter word count compare?
- Length: A short story generally won’t have any chapter breaks at all, whereas a 500-page novel may have many. If your piece is longer than a short story, you’ll want to break it up into manageable chapters.
- Audience: Keep your audience in mind when deciding how long a chapter should be and the number of chapters to include. How much time do you think your audience is willing to devote to a single chapter? When writing for kids, you want to write short chapters full of easy-to-read words. If your novel is more experimental, your readers may be willing to put up with long chapters and a more unconventional chapter structure.
7 Tips for Determining Chapter Breaks
If breaking your story up into chapters doesn’t come naturally to you, here are some tried and true writing tips for creating effective book chapters:
- Create an outline. Some authors, such as James Patterson, like to write an outline from the very beginning, whereas others, like Margaret Atwood, prefer to see where their writing takes them in the first draft, creating the structure later. If you’re struggling to determine chapter breaks, try writing an outline after you finish your rough draft.
- Create a promise in every chapter. Almost anything can be a question to the reader— What’s in the box? How will this character get out of the crashing plane? Who planted the bomb beneath the bus? Any question you’ve raised contains a promise that you’ll answer it. Try to use the chapter to answer the question and set up a new one to be answered in the next chapter.
- End with a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers pose big questions at the end of a chapter or section. Typically, a cliffhanger stops during a climactic event midway through the action instead of at its natural conclusion. Often, chapter endings fulfill a previous promise. Instead, take the reader to the moment before fulfillment and stop the chapter there. Is your hero about to push the villain off of a racing yacht? Stop where the hero has the villain in his grip. The reader will want to know how it plays out. You can also provide a surprise at a chapter’s end. This can be a new piece of information or an entire plot twist. Maybe the villain reaches for a hidden knife. Or as your hero is pushing the villain’s head into the sea, he notices a tattoo on his shoulder that means something remarkable—you don’t have to say what. Leave the reader thinking, “All right, I’ll read just one more page...”
- Practice rewriting chapter beginnings and endings. Choose a scene from your writing that has an ending. This could either be a chapter ending or the conclusion of a scene within a chapter. Experiment with creating a cliffhanger by cutting out the last few paragraphs of the scene. Move them to the next chapter or create a section break. Alternately, create a surprise. Let your characters learn something unexpected. Or don’t deliver on the promise you’ve made that the reader is expecting; instead, create a new promise. Don’t be afraid to disorient your reader and drop them into the middle of a scene. Let them be confused for a moment. Ask yourself: What does the reader want to know most in this chapter? Whatever it is, it should come at the end of the chapter (or even later), so drag it out.
- Approach each chapter with a specific goal. Summarize this in a single bullet point and keep it in mind as you write. One chapter might be focused on a chase scene. The goal of another might be introducing the hero. Once you’ve established that essential point, follow your creative impulse and ask: How can I make this interesting?
- Start chapters with a sense of urgency. Try opening a chapter in the middle of a scene, or with a question, an interesting fact, or a change of pace. It’s best to open a chapter with a teaser—an action, a bit of dialogue, or an interesting fact that will grab their attention. Even if you’re returning to a scene from a previous chapter, a teaser will provide an energizing break. Try to have your reader learn something new—this could be a new character, an element of the setting, or a piece of information.
- Don’t switch POV in the middle of a chapter. When choosing which character will serve as your main point of view for any chapter, hone in on the person who has the most to lose or learn. Whichever character is facing the highest stakes—the one who has the most to lose in a particular chapter—will be the one to follow closely because their thoughts and reactions will carry the most tension for the reader. The character who has the most to learn is often an equally good choice. It’s all right to have different subplots told from different points of view throughout your novel, but you should treat each point of view as an individual section or chapter. If you feel that the point of view needs to change, that might be a good place to start a new chapter.
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