Do you have burning questions about the craft of writing? Do you want someone to give you thoroughly subjective and opinionated advice about your authorial trials and tribulations? Maybe you don’t, but I am going to give it to you anyway in this new, very occasional blog series, Ask an Opinionated Writer.
Here’s how this thing works: You, the writers of the world, ask my opinion about a craft-related topic. I, after very little research or sleep, dispense my advice. Ideally, someone will learn something along the way. Does that sound like fun to you? Too bad.
Today’s unsolicited and possibly unsubstantiated craft advice is all about that humble building block of story structure: the chapter.
Dear Opinionated Writer, does my book even need to have chapters?
Of course not. Not all stories benefit from being broken into discrete segments. If you’re writing anything longer than a picture book or a piece of flash fiction, however, you’ll probably want to give your readers a few places to rest their eyes between scenes. They’ll need to get up to grab some more cookies from the kitchen, and you’ll need a chance to change your focus to another character, skip ahead in time, or pause for emphasis. Those pauses don’t have to be chapter breaks, of course; they can be lines of white space, or even those little asterisks that look like someone’s squashed a bug between the pages of your book.
The useful thing about chapter breaks, though, is that they are large and emphatic, like a really big squashed bug. Think about the effect you get from a single line of white space, and then think about how much stronger that effect would be if you used half a page of the stuff! The difference between a scene break and a chapter break is sort of like the difference between a comma and a period—they’re both pauses, but one is subtle while the other is decidedly less so. If you want to give a section of your book a decisive ending, switch to a new setting or point of view, or knock your readers out of the story for a moment (not always a bad thing), a chapter break could be just the solution for you.
How long should my chapters be, anyway?
I would say that’s up to you, but then I wouldn’t be very opinionated, would I? I personally like longer chapters. My chapters usually consist of at least two scenes, which works out to about 10 to 15 double-spaced typed pages. Chapters this length give readers a chance to snuggle comfortably into the world of the story without any jarring interruptions, and this effect is exactly what I want in the books I write, which are mostly medium-paced and sort of old-fashioned. If I were writing a thriller, though, I’d probably want to use shorter chapters to keep my readers a little less comfortable and a little more unsettled.
However long your chapters may be, dear authors, please do me a favor: Unless you are writing an early reader with very strict structural rules, don’t keep your chapters short only because you don’t think young readers will be able to handle longer chapters. If your story is the sort that requires lengthy chapters and kids aren’t up to reading more than a few pages at a time, they’ll find a natural stopping place within each chapter. Besides, you are such a good writer that you’ll draw them into the story, and they’ll be on to the next chapter before they know it.
How do I know when my chapter is finished?
Your chapter has achieved its purpose in life when it has advanced the story’s external plot, its internal character arc, or (ideally) both.
I am stealing this idea from author and VCFA faculty member Leda Schubert, who says in her lecture Exit, Pursued by a Bear that “advancing story and revealing character are the central purpose of scenes. … Your protagonist should be in a different place by the end of the scene; something will have changed.” You’ll notice that Leda is talking specifically about scenes here, but since a chapter usually contains at least one scene, I’d argue that these guidelines hold true for chapters, too. I try to make sure that each of my chapters contains at least one major plot development—a twist, a setback, or a triumphant resolution to a previous complication. I also like to flip my characters’ emotions on their heads: If my heroes are happy at the beginning of a chapter, they should probably be miserable by the end of it.
If you’re not sure whether a chapter is pulling its weight, imagine cutting it out of the rest of the story. Would the remaining manuscript still make perfect sense? If it would, then your chapter should be doing more to move the story forward. Maybe you’re ending the chapter too soon, before the real meat of the scene actually starts. Or maybe you’re including information that doesn’t need to be in the story after all.
My chapter won’t end! How do I get it to stop?
Once your chapter has done its work of sufficiently advancing the story, you’ll probably want to end it… but how? Knowing where and how to end a chapter can be tricky because there’s not always one obvious solution. There are, however, a couple of common strategies you can try. One is to end the chapter on a cliffhanger, at the height of the scene’s tension. The other is to end the chapter right after the scene’s resolution, when the tension has been released. I like both of these strategies and use them both all the time in my own writing. It’s important to not rely too heavily on one strategy or the other, though; ending every chapter on a cliffhanger can quickly become exhausting for both readers and writers, and ending every chapter on a note of resolution can drain all the momentum from your story.
Cliffhanger chapter breaks are great because they’ll keep your readers turning the pages. If you’ve ever been unable to stop reading a book after “just one more chapter” because you’re dying to know what happens next, you’re well aware of the power of the cliffhanger. On the other hand, this type of break can feel gimmicky and manipulative if it’s not used judiciously, so try to use it only at a few major crisis points in your story—not when the shadowy figure who enters the room turns out to be the main character’s mother bringing her kids a bowl of popcorn.
Ending a chapter on a note of resolution is great, too, because it gives your readers a chance to put the book down and go to the bathroom. It’s also a very satisfying sort of ending. Maybe you’ve resolved the main problem presented at the beginning of the chapter, or maybe you’ve made the problem even worse, but either way, you’ve given your chapter a complete miniature story arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s very considerate of you. This type of chapter break can be challenging, though, because it needs to happen as quickly as possible after that resolution has been achieved. Your characters will probably want to linger on for pages, making sandwiches and telling jokes. Don’t indulge them! End the chapter as soon as your characters’ actions and words become unessential to the story. I know it’s hard, but if you won’t do it for me, do it for John Gardner. He would have wanted you to, and he was even more opinionated than I am.
If you have a question for an opinionated writer, please ask it in the comments below, and I’ll try my best to answer it in a future post.