Chapters: What They Are, How They’re Useful, How to Make Them Work.

Nearly every writer, especially when just beginning encounters some problem involving chapters. “Are my chapters too long or too short?”, “What do I put here? How do I advance the plot in this chapter?”

Let’s explore chapters and their content.

First things first, don’t confuse chapters with scenes.

The scene is the heart of storytelling in this case. Each scene should be its own story within the context of the larger story, and should advance the larger story. It’s normal for chapters to contain multiple scenes.

A chapter is different. A chapter is more or less a tool for the reader, allowing the reader to reach a stopping point where they can pick it back up when they have time. They can have other uses too, which I’ll get into further down.

So in scenes vs. chapters, here’s an example that may help you recognize the difference.

Let’s say I’m telling you about my day. My “day” is the chapter, but I did multiple things with my day, each with a beginning, middle, and end:

Scene 1 in this chapter would be my waking up, making breakfast, and eating breakfast. Scene 2: I went to work. Scene 3: I went out with friends after work and got quite drunk.

Although that’s terribly mundane, I could also include how I burned my breakfast, how I forgot a coworkers birthday and it was awkward, or how I embarrassed myself singing karaoke at the bar. Those 3 parts of my day are scenes in the chapter of my day.

You could expand this out. For example if I don’t know you and I’m telling you my life story, I could divide parts of my life into chapters:

Chapter 1: Birth and toddler age. Chapter 2: Youth. Chapter 3: Adolescence and teenage years. Chapter 4: College. And so on.

Each of those “chapters” would likely include multiple “scenes”. In chapter two maybe I moved to a new town and met my lifelong best friend. In chapter 3, I went to a new a school, got my driver’s license, and I was an awkward mess. In chapter 4 I got a degree and moved out of my parents’ house.

Now, the above doesn’t necessarily correspond to chapters in fiction, and chapters aren’t necessarily bound to time in this way. That’s just to help clarify the difference between chapters and scenes.

So why use chapters at all if scenes are the most important? Here’s some reason why chapters are useful.

  1. Giving the reader a stopping point. I’m sure every writer would be happy to hear a reader read their entire book in one sitting because they just couldn’t put it down. If you’re writing a long novel, this probably won’t be the case, however, and certainly not for every reader. The chapter allows the reader to say “Okay, I’m going to read 2 chapters before bed.” or “I know I can read one chapter on my commute to work.” (hopefully an audio version if they’re driving.)
  2. Multiple locations, POVs, and time jumps. In a story that covers many character arcs and locations, chapters are incredibly useful. This allows you to switch perspectives easily without any clunkiness or confusion. A chapter can also allow for a time jump: A week? 10 years? Doesn’t matter. The chapter division is a good place to inform the reader of this change. Chapters are useful here, especially because chapters can cover the same period of time, but from different characters’ perspectives in different locations at different times.
  3. Pacing. Is your story a high tension, high stakes mystery? Shorter chapters can emulate urgency. If the character is slowly growing and developing, a longer chapter can emulate that.
  4. Keeping the reader interested. A good chapter ending will make me say “Okay, just one more chapter…” even when it’s 2AM and I should really be sleeping. The chapter keeps the reader coming back in this way.

Those are the main ones, but there can be more. The truth about chapters is that it varies a  lot and there is no “right” way to them. 

A chapter can be 200 words long and another can be 2,000 words. If the writing is compelling, it doesn’t matter. Each reader has their own opinions. Some love short chapters, some hate them. Some don’t care at all about length. As I’ve said, scenes are the thing that’s most important. Here’s some points about structuring your chapters.

  1. Organize the story by scenes first, not chapters. Don’t worry so much about chapter divisions at first. Focus on writing the scenes that are most vivid and most important.
  2. Where do you feel chapters should start and begin? It could be 50 pages, it could be 5. You decide what’s best for your story and where those should begin and end. Trust your gut on this. The length of a chapter has very little to do with the storytelling aspect. It’s more practical. Some authors get rid of chapters altogether even. In truth, it doesn’t matter.
  3. Let them be as long or short as they need to be. This will depend on your style, your story, and context in general. Whatever length they need to be to tell the story is what you should do. When that part of the tale has ended or there’s a practical reason to change chapters, then change chapters.
  4. Read. I’ll repeat this advice in almost every post, but that’s because it’s one of the writing “rules” that has stood the test of time. Read from a variety of authors and see how they did their chapters. What did you like or dislike? Agree or disagree with? How are you going to apply that analysis to your own work?

So focus on your story and what works for you and for it. In the words of Lady Macbeth, “Consider it not so deeply.” Do what is right and makes sense for your story and don’t worry too much about things like length, but focus more on scenes and content, that’s the heart of it.

If you want more information on this, here’s some more information on chapters:

Writing Excuses: Chapter Breakdowns (20 minute FREE podcast.)

Advanced Fiction Writing: Scenes and Chapters

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