Fiction Writing Basics: How To Make Sense Of Chapters

Fiction Writing Basics: How To Make Sense Of Chapters

When you’re new to fiction writing, you worry. One of the things you worry about are chapters.

Beginning authors send me questions like:

  • What’s a “chapter”?
  • How long/ short is a chapter?
  • How do you know when you’ve written one?

By the way, you might find this article useful, Fiction Writing Basics: Scenes, Narrative and Chapters if you’re not sure about scenes, etc.

In fiction writing, you’re the boss — take charge of chapters

When you’re writing your fiction, you’re in charge, and a chapter’s length is an arbitrary decision which you make, and you can make it at any time.

There aren’t any “chapter police.” 🙂

Years ago I read a mystery with a chapter consisting of ONE word. From memory, it was one of Don Westlake’s mysteries. The chapter was either at the midpoint twist, or at the “oops” milestone: the 80 per cent point of the novel.

I remember being startled by the device, but in that novel, it made perfect sense; and it worked.

Let’s look at why you might decide to combine a bunch of scenes into a chapter.

Reasons to create a chapter

The best reason is “because I need one.” That is, you instinctively feel that you should have a chapter here, and here, and here… Your intuition is usually a good guide to what a novel needs.

Let’s look at some additional reasons.

1. Chapters provide an entertaining structure so that readers will enjoy your novel

You build your novel so that it’s satisfying to readers. Therefore, certain things must happen in certain parts of your novel so that readers will enjoy your book.

For example, in the first third of the novel, you’re setting up your characters and plot for payoffs later. So, it’s a good idea to corral those scenes into chapters; it makes for a better reading experience, and a better writing experience.

My scenes tend to average from 1500 to 2,000 words. In several of my mystery series, I have three scenes per chapter, and I aim to end the Setup phase of the novel at the end of chapter three.

That said, it depends on the novel — the Setup might end at the end of chapter two, or the end of chapter six.

2. You may create chapters in service of your plot

Psychological thrillers seem to be all the rage over the past few years, after the success of Gone Girl. In novels of this type, you’ll often see chapters which focus on a range of dates, and/or which are narrated by one of the main characters alternating with another.

For example, let’s say that your thriller’s main characters are: Betty, Tom and Jim. In chapter one, Betty and Jim are in place to murder Tom, Betty’s husband. Betty narrates the chapter.

Chapter two is narrated by Tom, who survived the murder attempt. Then the novel goes back in time: “Three years earlier…” Your three main characters alternate in narrating chapters. Readers discover why Betty and Jim want to murder Tom, and how Tom escapes.

Novels with alternating points of view are fun to write, and they work well in many different genres.

Keep in mind that when you’re creating chapters, your aim is always to surprise the reader, and involve him emotionally, so that he keeps reading.

3. After your first draft, in revision, you might create chapters to corral your plot

I number my scenes when I’m writing fiction. A few years ago I suddenly realized that I’d got to scene 40 of a novel, and hadn’t created any chapters.

Did I need chapters? I decided that I didn’t and kept writing.

However, in revision, I soon found that I needed the structure that chapters provide, so that I could set up additional open loops, and their payoffs. (Read this article for more on open loops.) So I created some chapters.

Fiction writing: you’ll develop confidence with chapters over time

You learn to write fiction by writing lots of fiction. Over time, you’ll develop skill and confidence with chapters. You’ll also experiment with unique ways of telling your stories, and you’ll use scenes and chapters to do that.

Have fun. 🙂

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Angela Booth is a top copywriter, multi-published author, and writing teacher. She offers many guides, courses and classes to help writers to enhance their skills on her websites. She also provides inspiration and motivation for writers on her writing blogs. Angela has been writing successfully since the late 1970s, and was online in the 1980s, long before the birth of the Web. Her business books have been widely published.