Elements of a Great Chapter

Almost every novel has chapters.  There are the few bizarre exceptions like Jurassic Park, but they are by far not the norm. (And even they have scenes.  Sequences of events.  Smaller arcs inside their larger plots.)  As something so vital to the structure and character of a story, it’s amazing how little we actually talk about chapters.  But be amazed no more, because… we’re going to talk about it.

Chapter vs Scene

Before we get any farther in our discussion, we need to discuss some basic terminology.  (Yay terminology, right?)  Chapters and Scenes are not the same thing.  A scene is something that happens in one location.  Bossman Bob robbing a bank, would be one scene.  He walks through the door, pulls out a gun, tells everyone to get down on the floor, then grabs the money and runs.  That’s a scene.  It all takes place in one place, at one time.

But, is it a chapter?  Maybe.  Maybe it’s part of a chapter.  Maybe it’s three chapters.  Chapters aren’t easily defined as scenes are, but every good scene has some things in common.

Every good chapter…

Chapters aren’t just there for kicks and giggles. They don’t just exist to give your reader an easy place to press pause on your story.  They aren’t there because of some ancient oral tradition or a complicated aspect of the human psyche that some graduate student has written their last minute thesis about.  Chapters exist to serve a specific role in your novel: structure.  A novel without chapters (or any supplementary structure) would be rambly, unfocused, and exhausting for your readers.

Chapters add structure to your novel by isolating “value changes” in the plot.  That means that in every chapter something of value (hence, the name) to your plot changes.  For example: hero doesn’t have map, then he does.  That’s a plot-value change, and should be the basic outline of your chapter.

If you’ve already written a book, and you’re not sure how to break it up into chapters, go through it and back-outline.  Determine what scene or scenes change which values, and fill out a worksheet like this.

Chapter Beginning value Changed value
A Long Awaited Party Bilbo in Bag End Bilbo vanishes and leaves
The Shadow of the Past Bilbo is gone The world is ending

 

Once you’ve filled out your chart, go back in and break your chapters up accordingly.  Remember, some chapters will consist of more than once scene, that’s okay.  Some will split up scenes, that’s also fine, but you have to make sure that each chapter you have is complete as a chapter.  Here are some of the things you should look for:

Begins and ends

I know you’ve heard about character arcs and story arcs and all that, but what about chapter arcs?  Each chapter should have its own small arc related to the value change it contains.  The start of your chapters should be interesting, engaging, and should get things rolling as quickly as possible.  They should show your hero acting or reacting to (or maybe preparing for) whatever opposition he’s going to face as he pursues his goals.  Then, in the end, it should provide the reader with a smaller version of a good novel ending.  There should be some closure.  If your hero met his goal, then he should feel accomplished and confident.  If (more likely) he was thwarted in his attempts to do whatever it was that he was trying to achieve, then there should be a sense of missed opportunity, closed doors, mixed with his dogged determination to press on (or his doubts.)  A good chapter ending, like a good story ending, will leave your reader with a sense of closure, but also a desire to read more.

Is unexpected

Simply stated, the end of the chapter shouldn’t be what you’d expected when you read the beginning of the chapter.  If the character has to get from New York to San Diego, then the chapter outline should not look like “Fly from NY to San Diego.”  If he’s supposed to go beat up one of the villain’s henchmen, then he shouldn’t have an outline which looks like this: “Beat up the evil henchmen.”  Granted, there is a value change there, but it’s expected, and that means the reader could have figured everything out with the statement “the hero flew to San Diego” instead of reading the entire chapter.  That, is a waste of the reader’s time.

Every chapter should have an unexpected element which has significant ramifications to the plot.  “Significant ramifications to the plot.”  Sound familiar?  I’m talking (again) about the value change.  Not only does each of your chapters need to have one, they also need it to be unexpected.  (Usually, the unexpected part of the equation comes in when your hero fails in his attempt at he was trying to accomplish.)

How do you know if your chapter was unexpected?  Pull it out of your novel.  Can your readers bridge the gap easily and piece together what happened?  Then it’s probably time to shake things up.

Other notes

There are a lot of other things which should be in every chapter that I won’t have time to discuss today.  Things like character development, raised stakes, and both internal and external conflict.  The most important part about writing chapters is this: don’t overthink it.  Yes, I know I just spent an entire post outlining the “do”s and “don’t”s of outlining a chapter (and yes, everything I said here is still important) but you don’t want to get so caught up in making sure your chapters are perfect that you mess up the continuity of your story or, worse, don’t write it at all.  Remember, the rules of writing are important, but they are all means to an end: writing a good story.  You don’t want to give that up just to say you wrote a great chapter.

 

Photo: Do not cross.  Under any circumstances. Scott RobinsonCC BY 2.0


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Brandon

Raised on C.S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend the physical reality to reveal spiritual realities which apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts and solar systems (including our own.)
When not writing fiction Brandon spends his time tending his blog The Woodland Quill, sportsing, or just struggling through that last-year-of-high-school/first-year-of-college which is really neither but is definitely both.

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  1. Jess Penrose April 24, 2017 at 2:45 PM - Reply

    Thanks again! Chapters are definitely things that I struggle with. Mine generally have been scenes that are stretched out, or character development. If you are switching POV, is it best to do that by changing chapters, or just a new section to the other chapter?

    • Brandon April 24, 2017 at 4:06 PM Reply

      Glad to hear it helped!
      A lot of times I think that that depends on the book and the chapter. Two things you want to consider are chapter length and continuity.
      First off, you don’t want to take only one scene and end up writing what would be a really short chapter (compared to your others.) (You also don’t want say, one chapter in a thirty chapter book to be the only one with multiple scenes, other words your book would seem… random.) So that’s one consideration. Also, you want to think about how the different POV scenes would work together in the chapter arc. If you have two really tense scene and one really sad/scary scene then those would work well together. But if you have two tense scenes and one about having to babysit daycare, you’re probably going to have to look at writing them into two different chapters for the sake of emotional continuity.

      At the moment, I’m working on an epic Sci-fi with (I think) six or seven main POVs. (I don’t recommend it.) In order to keep the different character arcs in the reader’s recent memory, I’m kind of having to bend the plot over backwards to afford me a scene from each POV in (at the very least) every other chapter. On the other hand, when I wrote Pariah’s Exile (a sci-fi with only three or fourish POVs) I had a lot more freedom. Some of the earlier chapters (before all of the characters had been introduced) were told from only one POV and they began to split as the plot moved along and grew more complicated.
      So yeah… that. You don’t want to mess with the consistency of your story lengths, and you don’t want to mess with the emotional continuity of the story you’re telling in each chapter, but you have to make sure that no POV character gets deserted for too long either, or that a multi-scene chapter gets unexpectedly shoehorned into a book where it really doesn’t belong.
      So… there’s no one answer, because there’s no one book… but I hope that helps.
      Fantastic question, thanks for asking!

      • Jess Penrose May 1, 2017 at 2:33 AM Reply

        Thanks for that! It’s really helpful for what I’m doing at the moment! I’m writing a dystopian novel at the moment, and wasn’t sure about structuring. Some of those guides may be helpful! And good luck with your writing!

        • Brandon May 1, 2017 at 8:12 AM Reply

          Sure thing.
          Also, I went to a writer’s conference this weekend (it was fantastic) and one of the sessions was on POV. They said that one hard-and-fast rule is that if you switching from 1st to 3rd of vice versa, you have to start another chapter. Don’t know if that’s your plan, it’s not too common, but I thought I’d throw it out there!

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