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How to Write a Chapter

FEATURED IMAGE New York Book Editors 12 9 2019 How to Write a Chapter

Chapters are the sexiest part of a novel, said no one ever.

No one even thinks about chapters. No one says, “Oh, I love how that chapter was exactly 12 pages long” or “I appreciate how the chapters in that novel helped with pacing and tension.”

Chapters get no respect.

But, for most of us, chapters are a non-negotiable part of the novel-reading experience. Unless you have a darn good reason to not have chapters, you need them. Therefore, you must learn how to write a book with chapters.

In this post, we’re keeping it simple and discussing the art of writing an exquisite, gripping, and, dare I say, sexy chapter.

Let’s do it.

What's the Point of Creating Chapters?

Chapters are a must for every novel. There, I said it.

While not everyone agrees with this stance, I do believe that chapters are important for creating structure within your novel. Not only do chapters divide your book into segments for easy reference, but they also give your reader a chance to pause, breathe, and reflect.

Your story may be fascinating and bewitching, but humans aren’t meant to consume an entire 200-page novel in one sitting. It’s just too much to process. Chapters give the reader a chance to think about what’s happened in the story thus far and anticipate what happens next.

And did I mention take a bathroom break? The end of a chapter signals the opportunity to relieve oneself, and that cannot be ignored.

Without chapters, readers would have to fashion their own breaks. This can get sloppy. If the reader stops in the middle of the action, they’ll likely have to re-read to catch up, which gets tiresome after a while.

Chapters also make your novel appear more reader-friendly. No one wants to rappel down a large, never-ending wall of text.

Chapters are important for writers, too. With a chapter break, you have the opportunity to switch characters, shift scenes, and swap settings without confusing the reader. Chapters allow writers to reset the stage in the background. You can simply fade to black at the end of a chapter and then return with a new everything.

By the way, you don’t have to use chapter divisions in your first draft. The point of your first draft is to get everything out of your brain and onto the paper (or computer screen). Your first draft won’t look at all like your final draft, so there’s no need to bother with chapters at all.

Instead, chapters play a role in the editing process. When editing your first draft, you’ll fine-tune the structure of your novel and work on pacing. This is where chapters shine. Chapters help to control the speed in which you reveal your story.

You can have a great story but if you don’t pace it correctly, your story falls flat or loses the impact it would’ve had. Chapters can help you tighten your storytelling so that the readers stay on the edge of their seats.

Chapters can help you tighten your storytelling so that the readers stay on the edge of their seats.

How Many Chapters Should You Have?

How to Write a Chapter

Is your eye twitching yet? I know that this question is controversial. Some writers take a defensive stance against the idea that there may be “rules” in writing.

Don’t worry. I won’t impose any unbreakable rules in this post.

In truth, you can have as many chapters are you’d like or eliminate them. While the average book has 12 chapters, many have twice that amount, or even triple. It’s just an average. It’s not a rule that you must abide by.

The goal is to have as many chapters as you need to weave a taut tale. Remember that chapters are all about pacing. So, if you want to unfold your story quickly, you may use more. If you want to create a slow simmer, you may use less.

How Long Should Each Chapter Be?

Ah, another trigger-inducing question.

Just as there’s no universal rule for the number of chapters you should use, there’s also nothing written in stone about chapter length. On average, chapters range between 3000-5000 words. Of course, there are one-page, 300-word chapters, too. And every other configuration imaginable.

Your best bet in determining the sweet spot for chapter length is to conduct your research study. Check out top-selling books in your genre. What’s the average chapter length? Also, consider what’s covered in each chapter (is it one scene or several?). This gives you a good indication of what the average reader in your genre expects from your novel.

Then, follow your gut and write a chapter that makes sense for the way that you want to tell the story. But keep the following things in mind:

Chapters Vs. Scenes

Before I dive into how to write a chapter, let’s discuss the difference between a chapter and a scene.

A scene happens when your characters interact with each other. The scene does not mean scenery. In other words, a scene is not the same thing as the setting or the location where the action takes place. The scene is the action. Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end.

A chapter, on the other hand, may contain one scene. Or it may contain multiple scenes. A chapter is not a scene. Rather, a chapter is a division in your book. It’s where you, the writer, decide to give the reader a chance to process what they’ve read while you rearrange stuff in the background.

How to Begin a Chapter

How to Write a Chapter

Now that we know the difference between chapters and scenes, let’s discuss how to begin chapters.

Once again, no rules on this, but I believe that the most effective chapters begin with action. Instead of “setting” the scene by describing the location or the characters, get into some action. The character is walking, talking, thinking, or doing something.

The description slows the pace. Too much description makes the reader abandon ship because the story isn’t moving anywhere. Start with action. Add description. Go back to action.

How to End a Chapter

The goal is to create chapters that built momentum and keep the reader gasping for more. The end of each chapter should feel natural and come at the moment when you want the reader to stop and reflect on everything that’s just occurred.

Many writers choose to end a chapter at the end of the scene. However, you can also end a chapter in the middle of a scene as a cliffhanger. This strategy keeps the reader on the hook. However, you probably don’t want to end every chapter on a cliffhanger because that gets exhausting for your reader. And a tad predictable.

Another option is to foreshadow a future event at the end of your chapter. This can inspire your reader to stick with your story and even get excited about what’s possibly coming up next. Here's how to foreshadow like a pro.

When deciding when to end your chapter, think about where you’d like for your reader to pause.

What to Include in Each Chapter

Think of a chapter as a mini-story. Of course, none of the chapters in your book can stand alone because they’re connected in one large arch. However, a chapter usually has at least one scene (and sometimes several, related scenes), and each scene contains a beginning, middle, and end. So, in this way, a chapter has a mini-arc.

Chapters are like unresolved mini-stories that are interconnected. To find out what happens, the reader must read them all.

Because every chapter in your book should have at least one scene, each chapter should have at least the following:

  • A setting
  • Character(s)
  • Motivations (external and internal)
  • Conflict
  • Cause and effect (or action and reaction)

Final Thoughts

Chapters are essential because they help you control the pace in which your story is experienced. But remember that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing chapters. Follow your gut to decide when to start and stop each chapter.

Before you go, check out these related posts:

Stuck in the Middle of a Novel? Use These Writing Tips to Get Unstuck

How to Raise the Stakes in Your Novel and Create a Gripping Story

The Importance of Subplots

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