How to Structure the Chapters of Your Novel
Consider these tips when building out each book chapter. Above all, be sure to give each chapter a purpose that ties into the bigger story.
- Start with action. The action in a typical chapter doesn’t have to come with all the dramatic bells and whistles of the first chapter. Think of it mostly in terms of activity: A chapter that opens with a character in motion or a sense of urgency is far more interesting to a reader than one that opens with a character musing quietly to themselves. Try opening a chapter in the middle of a scene.
- Shape around plot development. Some book authors like to end each chapter with a cliffhanger, whether that’s an unresolved conflict between characters, a new crucial piece of information, or an actual cliff. Anything to keep the reader engaged in what comes next.
- Approach each chapter with a specific goal. 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 even more interesting?
- Use chapter titling to distill your focus. Chapter titles can be a summary not only of where the story has come from, but where it plans to go next. It’s a subtle nod to the promises you’ve made to the reader right from the start in the table of contents and onward: If you say something will come to pass, you’re going to get them there in a matter of a few more pages. When drafting, use stand-in chapter names as a map for yourself.
- Consider pacing. Chapter lengths lay the track for your novel’s pacing. Longer chapters might weave in flashbacks to illuminate a larger backstory and further your character development, while shorter chapters—in a thriller, for example—focus on action and reaction. This keeps the pacing quick, the tension high, and the pages rapidly turning. A chapter can also provide a pause, a chance for your main character to recap all that’s happened and plan what they’ll do next.
- Show a different point of view. Sometimes, chapter breaks represent interlocking or alternating perspectives. Each new chapter allows different characters to take over as the main POV and chime in with their view of unfolding events.
- Seek balance. In all writing, there are two types of narration: scene and dramatic narration. In scene, you show the characters performing an action or having a conversation. In dramatic narration, you simply tell the reader what the characters did, but the event remains “offstage.” It’s a good idea to vary the two modes: Choose a chapter from your novel. With a highlighter, mark the passages that are scenes, leaving the passages that are dramatic narration unmarked. Is there an imbalance between the two types of narration? If so, add some dramatic narration into scenes or vice versa.
- Don’t worry about clear chapter breaks in your first draft—unless it helps you stay organized. It’s best not to get too attached to the order or definitive direction of the elements of your story at first. Any first draft is bound to shift as you revise and begin to better understand where the story winds up. Leave room to surprise yourself and let the plot go in unexpected directions rather than writing to strict chapter boxes. If those boxes give you the structure you need to start writing? The more the merrier.
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