Monday, September 24, 2012

Organising Your Chapters

When it comes to being mindful of the needs of your reader, as opposed to just writing for yourself, how you organise and structure your chapters comes right at the top for me. They dictate the pace of your novel, and determine how engrossed your readers will be with your story.

Photo Courtesy of Dru

So, what are the guidelines (n.b. not rules) for the way you break your novel up in to chapters? These are the ones I follow. Feel free to disagree: that’s the whole point!

1.       Each chapter should have at least one defining moment that drives the story forward. Know those novels whose chapters are titled with ‘In which I lose my wooden leg in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em Poker’ or some such? That’s a good approach to take when thinking about defining any particular chapter in your book. If someone asked you ‘what is chapter 14 about?’ you should be able to reel off a succinct answer:  a mini elevator pitch if you will.

2.       Narrative voice and mood should not oscillate wildly from one chapter to the next or, worse still, within any individual chapter. Even if your MC goes through conflicting emotions and profoundly changes over the course of the story, having them enraged in chapter one, euphoric in chapter two, depressed in chapter three and content in chapter four is a narrative mess. Keep any such developments reasonably gradual; this requires you to organise your chapters accordingly.

3.       Don’t fall in to the trap of always (sometimes is fine) having one scene/place per chapter. You know what I mean: chapter one takes place in the MC’s house, chapter two at a park, chapter three in a bank, chapter four back at the MC’s house etc. It reads more like a stage play, and you’re effectively missing out on the unlimited scope the medium of the novel provides you.

4.       Your genre plays a big part in determining the general length of your chapters. As a YA author, I know that most teenagers have limited attention spans (almost a badge of honour these days), so reasonably short chapters are best. If, on the other hand, you’re writing a 120k epic, where immersion in a richly realised world is the name of the game, then maybe a bunch of five to six page chapteroids would not be a good idea.

5.       BUT you should definitely vary chapter lengths according to the needs of the story. For example, a chapter where your hero does something to win the affections of the woman he loves after many rejections, and the tender conversation they share afterwards, should probably not be dashed off in a few pages.  

6.       A tell-tale sign that a chapter might be too long is when one too many things happen when you think of it in terms of the ‘in which’ sentence. E.g. ‘In which I lose my wooden leg in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, have a reward of $10000 placed on my head, share an emotional reunion with my long lost cousin Wyatt, and shoot the sheriff in a Mexican standoff’.

7.       Ending your chapters on an intense cliff-hanger is great, of course, but if you do it too often it becomes contrived and you lose plausibility, not to mention narrative variety. There are other ways to leave your reader wanting more at the end of a chapter. An enigmatic statement from someone on the other end of the phone, perhaps. Or something that shifts the emphasis of the narrative: e.g. your heroine, who has been on the run from her abusive ex-lover in the previous two chapters, seemingly finding safety and collapsing in relief. 

8.       If you’re writing an omniscient third person narrative, getting the chapters right between each POV is absolutely critical. Your ostensible MC should get most of the narrative, but not so you thin out the development of the others to the extent that they (a) have considerably shorter and/or less significant chapters or (b) disappear from the narrative for huge periods of time. Use your chapters wisely to keep all POV’s compelling.

9.       I don’t write literary fiction by any stretch of the imagination, but don’t think you’re exempt from these or other guidelines if you do. 99.99% of writers cannot and simply should not try to get away with writing chapters that resemble the concluding one of Joyce’s Ulysses, say. The remaining 0.01% don’t need to be reading posts like these.

10.   Ignore any of the above before doing something outright barbarous (sorry Mr Orwell).

I can’t have possibly covered everything here, so your thoughts are most welcome.
This post originally appeared in the Litopia Writers' Community


  1. As a writer of literary fiction, I find point 9 quite hilarious and true! Also, #5 is very good advice, because at first the tendency is to rigidly stick to a predetermined chapter length, and that just doesn't work.

    If I were going to add something to your list, I might suggest that if you are going to write long chapters (whether for YA or adults) you should probably consider inserting breaks in the text so that people have stopping places. My first novel had very long, unbroken chapters, and my friends who read it had a hard time, because they felt that they couldn't read it unless they had time to forge through 40 pages of text at once. Blocks of time like that don't come up too often, so it's inconvenient for readers.

    Anyway, that's my two cents to add to a very interesting list. Thanks for posting it!

  2. Thanks for your addition: like writers, the reader has to fit their reading around life. Many people only get the chance to read on their daily commute to and from work, for instance. Breaking things down like that do indeed make things easier for readers :-)

  3. Very good points, although in a workshop recently it was explained that each scene should have an emotional change. Not always happy to sad, it could be sad to angry (as a natural progression), confused to scared or happy to ecstatic. If the emotion of the protagonist doesn't change in the scene then it will feel flat. Anyhow that was the approach given, so I just thought I'd throw it back over to you, see what you think.
    I do think you've got some very good points in your list.

  4. I'm not sure I buy in to that theory to be honest, and not just because of what I say in point two. You definitely should have your characters going through emotional changes, for sure. But it just comes across as too contrived, for me, if you have a different emotion for EVERY scene, even if it is a natural progression.

    Remember, that's just my opinion. These are more guidelines than rules! Thanks for your comment, and kind words :-)