How to Construct Chapters in Novels

I was surprised when I joined a dozen writers’ Facebook groups last year that many beginning writers still don’t know what a “chapter” is. They ask questions like:

  • How long should my chapters be?
  • How many chapters should I have in my novel?
  • Is it okay if one chapter is only one paragraph, when the others average ten pages?
  • How do you organize your novel into chapters?

Um. GUYS. Seriously.

Let’s put all the questions surrounding “chapters” to rest here on my blog, shall we?

First of all, if you’ve ever read a novel, you should know chapters can vary in length. How are you writing a novel of your own if you have never read one? And second, stop asking if whatever you are doing with your wip is “okay.” Of course it’s okay. You can do whatever you want!

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains about 10,000 mentions of the word “chapter.” Please forgive the author.

If you have read novels before, and you still don’t know what a chapter is and why breaking your novel down into chapters is important, I have some tips for you:

Tip #1: Outline

Write down the sequence of events that happen in your book (the plot). The best way to do this is scene-by-scene. Why? Well, a scene — by definition, a unit of action in a story — is the smallest component of a novel. Scenes are usually divided by time and/or scenery jumps. For example, if an event in your story takes place in a ballroom, and the next event takes place in a forest, you know those events constitute two separate scenes. If both events take place in the same ballroom, but at different times, such as in the morning versus at night, then those would also constitute two scenes. Make sense?

So how do you know where a chapter should begin and end? This is why I personally start my outline with Chapter 1. You can google what elements every first chapter needs and integrate those into your outline. Scrivener makes this very easy with virtual note cards, but you can write this down with a pen or pencil as well.

Your chapters will naturally begin to form as you formulate each scene in chronological order. You can usually sense when the last scene won’t smoothly lead into the next. A chapter should feel like its own thing — like a cog in a growing machine. The scenes that make up a chapter should be moving the reader to a certain conclusion or turning point. They can’t merely be cobbled together for the sake of a certain length.

If you have multiple POVs in your novel, a good rule of thumb is to add a chapter with each POV switch. In other words, if Amora is narrating one scene, and the next scene is told from Osric’s POV, then I would end the former chapter with that one scene and cut to the next. It doesn’t matter how long a chapter is. All that matters is that it has a beginning, middle, and end, and in some cases, you can accomplish that in a few sentences, or one scene. Make sure that you know the purpose of each chapter as you outline your novel.

Tip #2: Dynamics

If you are a pantser, you can still employ the same method of organizing your scenes into chapters. As you write, you’ll inevitably come across a scene that “cuts to black” or that does not smoothly transition into the next. Each chapter should serve a purpose, and that is to give your reader a sense of the passage of time and a sense of accomplishment. What was accomplished in Chapter 6? Did the characters’ circumstances change in any way? Has their emotional state changed? What has been revealed?

Think of chapters like TV episodes. There is always a beginning, middle, and end, a central theme, and an overarching purpose. A well-written series will consist of episodes that are each essential to the main plot, but can also stand on their own. One important factor here is that something must be different in the story by the end of the chapter, even if it’s as small as the character got a haircut (although that better be integral to the plot). Some chapters serve as bridges between two larger chapters, and that’s fine, as long as they are interesting and drive the reader to continue reading. Even in those, however, something must change, otherwise they will come across as pointless filler.

If you are writing your novel as one large mass of words without breaks throughout, all you will find as you look back is a jumbled mess. Chapters serve as important breaks that allow readers to breathe and get the sense that they are moving toward an intended destination, rather than meandering aimlessly through the dark. Imagine a TV show that wasn’t divided into episodes — a twenty-hour-long story with cliffhangers and short cuts between scenes, but no pauses. What purpose would the cliffhangers serve? How long would you be able to watch before you became exhausted? Would that frustrate you as a viewer, not knowing where to pause, take a breather, or use the restroom?

Tip #3: Cliffhangers

Almost always end chapters with cliffhangers. The reason this is necessary is not only to compel your reader to read the next, but also to prevent you from dragging toward the finish line. What if you ended every conversation in your novel with a “see ya,” or “thanks,” or “k, ttyl”?

Here’s the thing: you don’t actually need to write the end of a chapter (unless the narrator is knocked unconscious; don’t use that trope too much, though). You want to write what the reader needs to see, and that’s it. They don’t need to see the characters say goodbye after every conversation. They don’t need to see the immediate aftermath of every climactic point. The only place where you should write falling action is at the end of the book, not the end of every chapter. Write the climax of your chapter, and end it right before it crests the peak of excitement.

Recap!

So, how long should your chapters be? (As long as they need to be.)

How many chapters make up a novel? (Depends. Write however many chapters are necessary.)

Is it okay if one chapter is only a paragraph? (Does it serve a purpose? If you cut it out, would your story still make sense? If the answers to those two questions are ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively, then it doesn’t matter how long the chapter is.)

How do you organize your novel into chapters? (The easiest way is to outline, but you can also do it as you go along. I would not recommend writing your story, and then going back to chop it up. Make sure the end of each chapter ties into the beginning so the chapters could stand on their own — not that they should make sense outside the context of your plot, but that they should feel like cohesive parts within a larger whole. Also, if you have multiple narrators, give them their own chapter; you usually don’t need to switch POVs within the same chapter. (Although some rules were made to be broken.))

Image result for calvin and hobbes chapter

Got any more questions? Were any of the tips helpful? Let me know in the comments!

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