Writing fiction is incredibly rewarding. It also has a host of challenges. Becoming familiar and comfortable with chapter structure is crucial to telling your story effectively. If you find yourself unsure why and how chapters are formed, here are a few tips to guide you.
Every Chapter Should Serve a Purpose
If the chapter doesn’t move the story along in some way, it can be left out. Not every chapter has to be dramatic or even have a turning point, but it does have to serve a purpose. This may be revealing detail about a character’s past, creating a situation that will resolve a conflict, or revealing a character’s state of mind.
Start with Action
Opening each chapter with some action keeps up the pace of the story. Some actions may be dramatic; others could be as simple as making a cup of tea. Activity of any sort draws the reader in more quickly than a lengthy description of the scenery. The action could even be mental – the hero planning how to rescue someone – but it shouldn’t be a lengthy description of his sidearm.
End with a Question
You can’t end every chapter with a literal question, but you should leave the reader wanting more information. Perhaps the end of a chapter is a cliffhanger, with a danger that requires resolution. Maybe it’s the doorbell ringing, with the reader wondering who has shown up on the character’s doorstep. Leave the reader wanting more as they move through the chapters.
Creative Character Development
Many authors use chapters to introduce new characters as well as move the story along. If you are bringing in a new character who is pivotal to the story, devoting a chapter to their appearance on the scene can let the reader know the new person is important. It can also reveal a bit about their personality and character if you’re skillful in the way you write their first appearance into the story.
The Slow Reveal
When someone’s backstory is essential to a novel’s progression, don’t be too hasty, revealing it all at once. Instead, hint at the backstory using occasional chapters where you use a scene from the past to illustrate something, but not everything, about that person. Later, you can reveal a bit more in another chapter, letting the reader build layers of understanding as the plot unfurls.
Scene vs. Narrative
Although chapters should contain some action, it may not be a scene with actual movement and dialogue. In a narrative chapter, the writer relates what certain characters did. While a scene takes place, a narrative is told. Try varying your chapter structure to use both scene and narrative for added interest.
Use Chapters for Pacing
Some people set up the chapters as they outline their book; others write with no chapters until they finish the first draft and go back to revise. Whatever method you choose, keep in mind that the length of chapters will affect the pacing and mood of your book. If the action is rapid-fire and tense, several shorter chapters can reinforce the tension. For a more contemplative novel, longer chapters may help the reader become immersed in the story’s mood, slowing down to soak in the tale’s atmosphere.
The rules for chapter structure aren’t carved in stone. As you develop your story, you may discover that a variety of chapter styles works better than one. If you’re in doubt about a particular chapter, ask a trusted friend to read it and give you feedback.
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