Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What Is a Chapter?

Yesterday, writer Liana Brooks shared her editing worksheet, a tool she uses to evaluate each chapter before she starts actual revisions. I always find it intriguing to learn how other writers handle different parts of the writing process and I inevitably learn something new or take away at least one really good idea to try out myself. Liana didn't disappoint.

However...her worksheet evaluates one chapter at a time and I don't know if I can use it the same way. In fact, with Promise and Purpose, I did something similar, but used note cards and had one for each scene, not chapter. Because, to me, "chapter" is kind of ambiguous.

I mean, seriously...what is a chapter? Some authors' chapters can be as short as one page while others are 40+. Some chapters contain a single scene, others contain multiple scenes and others are just one part of a multi-chapter scene. So how do we know when a chapter is done and when to start a new one?

When I first started writing, a chapter ended when the scene was over. Some were short, while others were painfully long. At some point in revisions of Promise, I realized that my chapters really were just scenes. I ended the chapter there because the scene had started, arced and ended and that was a good stopping place.

Just like for readers - a chapter is a good place to take a break. Go to sleep. Put the book down.

But, wait. As authors, we don't want them to put the book down! We want them to be so absorbed that even when the chapter ends, they MUST keep reading.

How do we do that? By ending the chapter with some kind of cliffhanger. Maybe it's right in the middle or at the climax of a scene. Readers will definitely move on to the next chapter because they have to know how it all turns out. But it doesn't have to be right in the middle.

The scene can end. The protag can share their reaction to what just happened. It's a good, sensible place to end the chapter and start a new one. To keep our reader from putting the book down, though, our last sentence must raise a new, compelling question. There must be something pressing, urgent, something that the reader can't wait until tomorrow to find out. It's the transition from this chapter to the next that must be done in such a way that the reader, who was just thinking, "Nearly done with this chapter and then I'll go to bed," reads that last sentence and now thinks, "Damn. Okay, just one more chapter. I have to know what that means!" (Or "what they'll do!" or "what happens next!")

I think, in years/decades/centuries past, the idea of the chapter really was to tell the reader to stop and take a break. Authors wanted to provide the reader with a breaking point.

But these days, a breaking point gives the reader an opportunity to get distracted. So many people, places and things fight for our attention and as soon as we lose the reader's attention, we might lose them for good. They might not come back for a long time and by then, might have forgotten what they read and then lose interest.

Today's author has to create a page-turner that sucks the reader in and keeps them entranced until the very last page. Based on reviews and people telling me I should have a disclaimer on my books that says, "Warning! May cause lack of sleep!" I apparently have done a decent job with this. How do I do it? Well, there are a lot of things, but as for chapters, here's a basic idea:
  • I decide an average chapter length. I don't like really short (1 or 2-page) chapters because, unless there's really good reason for it, it seems gimmicky to me, trying to make the reader think the pace is really moving quickly when it might not be. I definitely don't like long, over 25-page chapters. I also notice that, in general, my scenes range from 10-18 pages, but some are quite shorter and others quite longer. The number I came up with is 15.
  • I then scroll through the completed book, count out pages and find a good place to break at every 12-15 pages. I don't like anything less than 11 and no more than 18. Sometimes it's in the middle of the scene. Sometimes it's not and the scene has ended. Then I write a new last sentence, one that raises that compelling question that leads into the next chapter.

I didn't come up with this idea all by myself, of course. I'm just not that brilliant. You can see it easily in fast-paced novels by well-known authors. I actually really noticed it in Twilight. Not my fave book ever, but I did get sucked into it and couldn't figure out why. This is one reason - read the last sentence of each chapter. Go do it and you'll see. Same with The Hunger Games series (which is one of my fave series ever).

So what is a chapter? It's one part of a longer piece of writing. A way to break it up so readers don't feel intimidated by one-really-long-and-scary narrative. It can be used to offer the reader a break...or to keep them excited and enthralled, unable to put your book down.

What's a chapter mean to you? How do you use chapter endings in your writing to keep the reader reading, or at least, anxious to return?


  1. I believe chapters is a hold over from the subscription story, the ones written by Dickens and Conan Doyle and submitted to newspapers weekly or monthly.

  2. Oh! I should have explained.

    At this stage in writing a chapter consists of a set word count, and no more than three physical sets. I break my novel up like this in the early stages specifically for editing purposes. Three thousand words is on the long end for my crit-partner to read. It's also about as long as I would want to post or hand out with a writing group (virtual or real).

    The chapter headings will get reshuffled at least once before I query the novel. It's possible I'll drop the headings all together, or sort them by POV, which might make more sense for my current WIP.

    Three thousand words is about 10 pages printed, just the right length for editing on a busy schedule. That's why my chapters are as they are, and why my worksheet goes by chapter.

  3. Lara, I did think of that, but, without doing the research, I would think those chapters would have cliffhanger endings. They would want the readers on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next issue. That's not true in many of the classics. I actually think those serial "chapters" might have been the predecessor to what readers need today: a reason to keep reading.

  4. Liana, I hope you don't think I was picking on you! Yikes! By all means, no. I just liked your worksheet idea and was trying to figure out how to adapt it...which got me to thinking about what, exactly, is a chapter. It actually sounds like we write our "chapters" similarly, even if they don't turn out to be the same "chapters" in the book. Which goes back to my question...


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