How does one know when to start a new chapter? How long should a chapter be? How much information should each chapter hold?
If we break every chapter we’ve read down we will find they hold a template. I am giving you this template here. Length of a chapter cannot be decided by word count but by scene. Read on to learn the true tricks of an author.
Not saying they have to stand alone but they need a beginning, middle and end. They need a purpose / point. This is the conflict that your MC needs to get over, it is not always something big.
Allow me to explain. Chapter one of your novel, you want to introduce your MC and any other players of immediate affect, you want to set the scene and get the story started. You want a choice that will lead to the rest of the book.
The short story is that choice. How did it come to this.
Say I was writing a novel where 3 teenagers see a murder on the docks and the rest of the story is them trying to survive the night. The first chapter would introduce the MCs through conversation and action. They would decide to take a certain route on the dock. I don’t need to write the murder in this chapter that could be next. This chapter has made a bad decision and, if written correctly, the reader will get the feeling of a bad description before the teens even head down that route.
Like a short story that chapter has now had a start, a conflict, an end.
Start: characters conversation to introduce personality and set the scene. Conflict: the decision to take a certain route. End: that first step down bad move lane.
By conflict, we do not mean every chapter has an epic battle to the death. We mean problems. Problems that need solving. This can be big or small. Something to solve or get over. Not necessarily a fight. A decision, a change of direction, an event that needs to be faced, somewhere to get to or get away from.
When you are writing the plot lines for your book and your chapters, are you making a list of all your main events and decisions? These are your chapters.
Pick up the last book you read and decipher it. Lay its chapter selection before you and write what each chapters conflict was. Doing so will help you to understand exactly what we mean.
No. everything should advance the plot or sub plot. Every sentence should contribute to the book as a whole. It needs to say something about the situation, your MC, your sidekick, your villain, the problem or plot.
If you have a chapter in that book that you can take out completely without affecting the story, should it really be in there?
If it does not contribute to the plot or main characters at all, should you spend time editing it?
Think about this:
Make every chapter count.
Some authors use a chapter start as a way to unify their work. By that we mean that the authors start each chapter in a similar way, this is comforting to the reader and a great way for the author to draw a reader into the novel.
A very subtle method that takes a lot of clever thinking. Here are some ways to pull this off:
- Start every chapter with your MC thinking.
- Start every chapter with conversation.
- Start every chapter with a time and place.
- Start every chapter with an action.
- Start every chapter with a description.
- Start every chapter with a warning, countdown or some other sinister thing that makes the believer think that trouble is coming the more they read.
End on a hook or statement that makes the reader want to read on. Something that makes them go what?! or No! or Tell me he didn’t! this is how you make a page-turner. Treat each chapter as an episode of a tv series, each one ending to make you want to see what happens next week.
For example; we all know what happens when the MC goes down a dark and creepy alley, at least we believe we do. Make the last thing in that chapter your MC taking the first step down that alley.
Alternatively, You know how we say start a new paragraph when the camera changes? Start a new chapter when the setting changes. When you are seeing from a different POV. When you have moved back or forward in time. When you have moved to the other side of the galaxy.
- Name after the speaker. Example: In one of the Dreams and Reality books Hadena James has everything labelled chapters 1, 2, 3 and so on. But for each bad guy that has, its own POV chapter she labels those chapters with the name of the bad guy.
- Name with numbers and words. Chapter 1. The Reckoning.
- Name with lines of poetry. This has to relate to the story. I did read one of these as a youngster but cannot recall the name. So let’s say you wrote a poem and placed it in the front of your book. The poem tells a story, the book elaborates on the story. Chapter 1 could be the first line of that poem. Can you make this work. (I suck at poetry so I’m not even going to try for an example here.)
- Name with quotes from the chapter itself. Read your chapter aloud. Any phrase stand out that sums it up? In the Outlaws book 2 (found in the first volume of three books) there’s a chapter called soaked and scared. This chapter pretty much sums up what kind of trouble the MC was in within that chapter.
- Make your table of contents tell the story. I used to open books to the table of contents in a library to find books with the elements I wanted. anything that said danger, caught, kidnapped caught my eye. give an idea of your story through the table of contents, just be careful not to give too much away.
Don’t Forget To READ
If you are not reading other peoples books and works then you are not going to learn anything. Pick up the book nearest you, (In my case it’s Chaos Gate) and ask yourslef the following questions. I am going to answer each of the questions with examples from Chaos Gate.
- How many chapters does it have? -CG 32
- How long is each chapter? – 10 pages
- Does every chapter start in a similar way? Yes. They all start with an action, (pacing back and forth / putting head in hands / summoning the guards) unless the chapter was written from the POV of the enemy then they all seem dark, cold and descriptive (the halls were cold and dark, Aramanthia was hissing. Harlachan was prowling).
- How does each chapter end? Normally by moving forward, heading to a new place. Sometimes by horrifying conversation. e.g. Are we too late? We dare waste more time?
- What’s the story of each chapter? Deciding to meet her. Meeting her. Event in the forest. Deciding on the next step. Chase in the forest. epic battle. Another first chase. Some of these chapters purely about decisions to be made, others life or death action.
- How are the chapter headings labelled? Roman numerals with a heading. E.G Chapter XI The Maid of the Forest. Always a quarter of the way down the page, always on the right page even if this leaves a blank page before it.
- Does it have a table of contents? Nope
What have we learned? We have learned one way a successful author tackled these chapters. Compare it to other authors and make your own successful style.
Kelly is an author and blogger who completed her first novel while still in high school.
She is currently a full time writer. Her works include the outlaws series (4 books), The Lady in the Loft collection (Anthologies), Gaming blogs and guides (hired work), travel writing and more.
While Kelly has been writing stories for many years she got her start at online blogging through a free online course. This is what led to her being a full time work from home writer. To this day she states “It’s the best move I ever made.”
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