Chapters in Fiction
Our self-editing series continues with this post about chapters in fiction. As an editor, I see weak chapters all the time. As an author, I write weak chapters all the time. It happens, and is normal in the initial phase of a novel. However, when you edit your book, there are several things that each chapter must accomplish. Let’s take a look at some common questions and problems.
Beginning a chapter
So how do you know when to start a new chapter? For the purpose of this article, we’re talking about all chapters except the first one. That one’s a discussion all by itself.
Typically, if you write in multiple POVs (points of view), you’d start a new chapter each time you switched to a different POV. When you do this, you must clearly identify the new POV as soon as the chapter begins (within the first sentence if possible).
Chapter length should be somewhat consistent throughout the novel. Some variation is okay, but you don’t want a 3,000-word chapter to suddenly appear when most have been half that size. There is an exception to that though. Extremely short chapters are becoming more common, especially when a major event occurs in a story written in multiple POVs.
Finally, when you start a new chapter, make sure the opening paragraph pushes the story along. Well, duh, you say. Don’t deny it. I heard you. When editing, read each chapter as an independent story. Is the opening interesting? Or is it a recap of today’s weather? Is your character staring into a mirror, pondering the situation? Or is something actually happening? With each chapter opening, you must give the reader a reason to keep going in the story.
The easy answer? As long as it needs to be. No question, the trend today is toward shorter chapters. There are lots of reasons for that, but one of the biggest is that the way people read books has changed. Rather than devote hours to a novel, most readers grab a chapter here and there. Long line at the bank? Read a chapter. Got ten minutes before you have to be back at your desk? Read a chapter. Spicy dinner last night? Read a chapter. Or two.
Readers like to have a clean stopping point, and a chapter break gives them that. The other big benefit to shorter chapters? Lots of white (blank) space. That may sound like a bad thing, but it’s actually preferred. It’s easier on the eyes when there are gaps in the text, and allows readers to keep track of where they are on the page.
And as a bonus, shorter chapters mean longer books. Ever wonder how you managed to finish that 400-page story so quickly? Take a look at how much white space there is in the novel.
Ending a chapter
How do you know when it’s time to end a chapter? Don’t make the mistake many new writers do and use word count as your only guide. Each chapter should be at least one scene, and possibly more. A scene can be defined as an event that changes something or someone, usually one of the main characters. It is not necessary that the character knows something’s different, but the reader should at least suspect an event has occurred that will change that person for better or worse.
Reread your chapter. Who (or what) has changed since the chapter began? Who (or what) is different at the end? If you can’t identify it, then you don’t have a scene (or chapter). In fact, you can probably delete most of the chapter because there’s no action in it. Realize that the change doesn’t have to be a big one. In fact, it shouldn’t be except in certain spots in your book.
Make sure you end every chapter with some sort of cliffhanger or sense of foreshadowing. Something that makes the reader want to go on to the next chapter. Keep it in the proper POV and switch tactics throughout the book. Not every ending has to lead to a dramatic opening in the next chapter. Humor can be very effective if done correctly.
Note that scenes often contain mini-dramas within them. For example, two people can be arguing about something. You don’t have to show the whole argument in one chapter. The fight could escalate until one character says something his opponent didn’t know, perhaps a family secret. Suddenly, both characters are changed by what’s just happened. That’d be a great place to end the chapter. Not only have you met the criteria for a scene, but you’ve provide the all-important impetus for the reader to turn the page.
Happy with your chapter?
Satisfied that your chapter meets the criteria for a complete scene? Convinced that its ending will leave the reader no choice but to turn the page? Great! Now it’s time to really dig into the details of the writing and fine-tune everything.
Watch for the next installment in our self-editing series soon!