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Thread: How do you decide where to put a chapter?

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  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW TellMeAStory's Avatar
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    How do you decide where to put a chapter?

    Scene breaks pose no problem, and parts logically assign themselves--but chapters? I'm stumped.

  2. #2
    Possibly A Mermaid Queen Absolute Sage lizmonster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TellMeAStory View Post
    Scene breaks pose no problem, and parts logically assign themselves--but chapters? I'm stumped.
    This is pretty subjective, as I'm sure you know. In general, a chapter should have a narrative arc - a beginning, a middle, and an end, although the end, in the case of a chapter, isn't a conclusion the same way the end of the story is.

    As a rough analogy: a scene break is a comma, and a chapter break is a period (or a semicolon). It's a pacing device, and you can play with it however you like.
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  3. #3
    Where have the last ten years gone? Bufty's Avatar
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    If there is a point or purpose to each chapter, i.e., a chapter goal for the POV character, then you could choose to end the chapter on the achievement of the goal, or better on the point of suspense where the goal may or may not be achieved, or better still on the point where total disaster is imminent, or where the character is faced with a serious decision, or….

    As lizmonster says, it's a pacing tool and you can use it however you wish.

    In many cases the breaks will come naturally as the tale unfolds.
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  4. #4
    Father of a thousand spawn Biffington's Avatar
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    If you have a full-sized novel, not a thriller or novella, chapter ends are good stopping points. You can have cliffhangers on them, but they need to be a place where the reader can put the book down after their spouse has nagged them to go to sleep for the past half-hour.

  5. #5
    Where have the last ten years gone? Bufty's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Biffington View Post
    If you have a full-sized novel, not a thriller or novella, chapter ends are good stopping points. You can have cliffhangers on them, but they need to be a place where the reader can put the book down after their spouse has nagged them to go to sleep for the past half-hour.
    That's an oxymoronic phrase in the second sentence. The whole point of a cliffhanger is the reader can't put it down. Anyway, bookmarks are cheap.
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  6. #6
    Grumpy writer and editor Absolute Sage Gillhoughly's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Biffington View Post
    If you have a full-sized novel, not a thriller or novella, chapter ends are good stopping points. You can have cliffhangers on them, but they need to be a place where the reader can put the book down after their spouse has nagged them to go to sleep for the past half-hour.
    Screw the spouse, read the book.

    As stated in my other post, a writer should show NO consideration for the feelings of the reader, but hook them hard like a fish and not let them go until the last page of the book.

    Chapter breaks need to have a cliffhanger of some sort to urge the reader to turn the page. The reader HAS to know what happens next. If the chapter winds things up in a nice little stopping place the reader might stash the book under the bed and never return.

    I learned about the cliffhanger thing in grade school when the teacher read A Wrinkle in Time to us. I'd never encountered SF in book form before, just in cartoons. This was the most awesome story, ever, and the chapter breaks were always at a climax. We begged and begged her to read just a little of the next one, and groaned in agony when she put the book away until next time.

    THAT'S what you do to readers. Hook them hard, make them ride your tiger until they're exhausted, and don't let them off until you're done. They will be back for more.

  7. #7
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillhoughly View Post
    Screw the spouse, read the book.
    Lol, I never understood it when people tell me that their partner nags them to come to bed the way parents nag their kids that it's bedtime. I don't think my spouse has (in the nearly 30 years we've been together) told me when I should go to bed, even if he's thinking, Wow, she's going to be tired tomorrow. He nearly always goes to sleep before I do, because I'm a natural night owl, and my work schedule is generally later than his.

    So I'm definitely guilty of "one more chaptering" myself into the wee hours when I'm reading a fun book.

    I don't know that chapters have to end on cliffhangers exactly, but I completely agree they should have some sort of compelling transition to the next story thread or segment that makes the reader want to keep going.

    Writers definitely don't want to make it too easy to stop reading at the end of a chapter. I've abandoned books at chapter breaks if I put it down and get distracted by something more interesting (like another book).
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 12-03-2019 at 11:50 PM.
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    Wherever I go, there I am. indianroads's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roxxsmom View Post
    Lol, I never understood it when people tell me that their partner nags them to come to bed the way parents nag their kids that it's bedtime. I don't think my spouse has (in the nearly 30 years we've been together) told me when I should go to bed, even if he's thinking, Wow, she's going to be tired tomorrow. He nearly always goes to sleep before I do, because I'm a natural night owl, and my work schedule is generally later than his.

    So I'm definitely guilty of "one more chaptering" myself into the wee hours when I'm reading a fun book.

    I don't know that chapters have to end on cliffhangers exactly, but I completely agree they should have some sort of compelling transition to the next story thread or segment that makes the reader want to keep going.

    Writers definitely don't want to make it too easy to stop reading at the end of a chapter. I've abandoned books at chapter breaks if I put it down and get distracted by something more interesting (like another book).
    My partner of 40 years rarely reads novels, but has gotten used to my light being on past midnight. Admittedly though, I don't read as late as I used to because my retirement is busy.

    Regarding cliffhangers, strictly speaking I don't like them at the end of chapters. Cliffhangers, meaning the antagonist is about to drive a knife into the heart of the protagonist, then end of chapter. However, I do like to give a foreshadowing at the end, something that will intrigue reader such that they are eager to read on, even if they have to set it aside for the night.

  9. #9
    Seashell Seller Layla Nahar's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by indianroads View Post
    ...chapters represent steps along the path, between the beginning and the end of the story.
    ^I like this.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gillhoughly View Post
    Screw the spouse, read the book.
    The problem is that each of these is very distracting from the other.
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  10. #10
    Where have the last ten years gone? Bufty's Avatar
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    That's one type of cliffhanger, indianroads, but certainly not the best or most subtle and not the only sort by any means. The protagonist obviously isn't going to die during the story unless it's a particular genre.

    I regard cliffhangers as points of heightened tension, of uncertainty and/or anxiety as to what happens next.

    Quote Originally Posted by indianroads View Post
    My partner of 40 years rarely reads novels, but has gotten used to my light being on past midnight. Admittedly though, I don't read as late as I used to because my retirement is busy.

    Regarding cliffhangers, strictly speaking I don't like them at the end of chapters. Cliffhangers, meaning the antagonist is about to drive a knife into the heart of the protagonist, then end of chapter. However, I do like to give a foreshadowing at the end, something that will intrigue reader such that they are eager to read on, even if they have to set it aside for the night.
    Last edited by Bufty; 12-05-2019 at 02:07 PM.
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  11. #11
    Wherever I go, there I am. indianroads's Avatar
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    For me, chapters represent steps along the path, between the beginning and the end of the story.

    Complex stories with several timelines going or multiple points of view may not fit this mold though.

  12. #12
    practical experience, FTW Patty's Avatar
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    I've seen examples that simply break for no rhyme or reason and continue on the next chapter. I'm tempted to try a style like this--even breaking mid sentence, heh--and continuing into the next chapter with the end of the sentence.

    LOL. I'm tempted, man. Self publishing, you can do whatever you want. Heh.

  13. #13
    Wherever I go, there I am. indianroads's Avatar
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    I've read books without chapters - just scenes. It can work.

    If you have a full-sized novel, not a thriller or novella, chapter ends are good stopping points. You can have cliffhangers on them, but they need to be a place where the reader can put the book down after their spouse has nagged them to go to sleep for the past half-hour.
    I agree.

  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW Cindyt's Avatar
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    I end my chapters the way I end my articles--with a bang or a disquiet or thought-provoking dialogue or narrative.
    You can fix anything but a blank page.--Bonnie Hearn Hill

  15. #15
    Grumpy writer and editor Absolute Sage Gillhoughly's Avatar
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    It's a pacing thing for me. Each chapter has at least one major plot point to urge the reader on to the next chapter. Each chapter has 1-3 scenes, depending how much you want to cram in.

    My chapters run from 15 to (and in one case) 40 standard manuscript pages, usually averaging 20-25. Twelve to fifteen chapters = a solid length novel.

    I dislike writers who do little 2-3 page mini-chapters. Those give the reader an excuse to put the book down at any time, and they might never pick it up again. They also do not give the writer much room to develop a good scene or expand on character development.

    You want scenes in the chapter to have a beginning, middle, and climax. Two to three scenes per chapter is something to consider or a chapter comprised of one scene is fine. After a bit of practice you figure out what works best for you.

    Just don't be the kind of hack who works on a scene until it bores you, then throw in a break to start a shiny new scene. I've spotted those again and again, even in commercially published works. You be a better writer than that. Keep in mind that if a scene bores you, it will certainly bore the reader!

    It's okay to be a pantser, but your book needs structure and pacing. Breaks should serve a purpose, not be because the writer ran out of steam or ideas.

    Each chapter needs to end in a climax. It need not be a huge, but it needs to urge the reader to turn the page.

    You, the writer are NOT to be polite to your readers. You be ruthless. You build in those cliffhangers, large or small, that keep the poor readers up all night, unable to put the book down, and then cursing your name as they sleepwalk though the next day like stoned zombies.

    Because along with cursing you, they will demand the next book immediately, if not sooner. They will track down like minded friends and insist they read your book so they can talk about it, and they will become lifelong fans.

    You ever get caught up in a soap opera? At the end of each episode is some kind of climax so you HAVE to tune in tomorrow to see what happens next. That's what you do as a writer.

    One of my hacks is to get a stack of index cards and write out a brief synopsis for each specific scene you want in the book. A single sentence is usually enough: "Harry meets the killer" and "fight scene" and "Harry rescues the cat", etc.

    Spread them on the floor, tape to a wall, or stick them up on the fridge with magnets. Arrange in the order that best works for telling the story. Keep the best, toss others if they don't work.

    This kind of hack is great for pantsers who are free to insert new scenes as they occur and outliners who like to keep track of the story arc and organized.

    Pick favorite books that you've read many times and look at the chapter endings. Is there a little climax involved? How are individual chapters constructed? What key scenes take place that lead to that cliffhanger? Study how other writers have tackled this.

  16. #16
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TellMeAStory View Post
    Scene breaks pose no problem, and parts logically assign themselves--but chapters? I'm stumped.
    There's no hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes a chapter can encompass a single scene, other times a chapter can contain several. For me, the decision when to end a chapter isn't generally conscious but based on a sort of intuition that (presumably) comes from my experience reading novels in the same genre and overall narrative style. I end a chapter when it feels like the end of a chapter.

    I know that's not terribly helpful, so I'd say I think a chapter has a sort of arc of its own. It has a set of goals and challenges, and when those reach a logical conclusion the chapter ends with a sort of breadcrumb or segue leading to the next story segment.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 12-01-2019 at 12:45 AM.
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    Toughen up. gothicangel's Avatar
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    I know this isn't helpful, but knowing where a chapter ends has always come naturally. Perhaps its (almost 40) years of reading novels, but to me a chapter is a self-contained scene or idea and comes to a natural resolution. That doesn't mean a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. It can be new a question/complication being raised, the MC making a decisive decision or even an emotional 'cliffhanger'. Whatever it is, it has to make the reader want to turn to the next chapter and distract them from the fact that they have another 10 books on their 'to read pile' and this one isn't really engaging them as they had hoped.
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  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by gothicangel View Post
    I know this isn't helpful, but knowing where a chapter ends has always come naturally. Perhaps its (almost 40) years of reading novels, but to me a chapter is a self-contained scene or idea and comes to a natural resolution. That doesn't mean a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. It can be new a question/complication being raised, the MC making a decisive decision or even an emotional 'cliffhanger'.
    That's how I view it. For me this often means the chapter ends when the characters move to a different location because that "scene" is done. If they're spending a lot of time in one spot, then the chapters end when something else gets accomplished and they're moving on to solving the next problem or the next problem arises. My chapter lengths vary, but I can sum them up in one sentence because they only cover one "idea" or "event."

  19. #19
    You Are My Density Gateway's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TellMeAStory View Post
    Scene breaks pose no problem, and parts logically assign themselves--but chapters? I'm stumped.
    Make each journey part a chapter.

  20. #20
    practical experience, FTW Dan Rhys's Avatar
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    Every one of my chapters is itself a small story--beginning calm but then introducing rising action, a conflict, and some sort of return to calm (not necessarily a resolution). Once that calm has returned, I generally begin a new chapter, where another conflict (or at least significant situation/dilemma) is likely to occur.

    Thus, in short, try to divide the whole story into smaller dilemmas or battles, and the chapters should then practically divide themselves.
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  21. #21
    Aerospace engineer turned writer Laer Carroll's Avatar
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    Different people use chapters different ways. lizmonster for instance uses them for pacing.

    I don't. I use them as containers for scenes/scene summaries. And use them in different ways in different books.

    In one book (The Eons-Lost Orphan) each chapter covers a big chunk of my Supergirl-like heroine at major parts of her life. Fall to Earth, Adopted, Junior year high school (advance placed past earlier years because she's a genius), Senior year HS. Semesters at the US Air Force Academy. Each year has three semesters: Fall, Spring, Summer. So 4 + 4x3 = 16 chapters. Worked for me. The book made enough money that I could buy a luxury car + a desktop supercomputer.

    Another book (Sea Monster's Revenge) is also time-based but with smaller chapters in a fatter book. I forget how many, but I think nearly 40. Each chapter recounts my heroine's gathering clues and fighting baddies until several final chapters. In them she enacts a literal blood bath in Argentina at a crime org's headquarters.

    In a work in progress the time line jumps back and forth. I use themes rather than time as an organizing principle. In each chapter it has contrasting sets of scenes, such as Me As a Kid Dating + Me as an Adult Dating. Another chapter is My first job as a Kid + My years as a US Marshal.

    Basically a chapter is an organizing tool for writers. If we've captured our readers chapters mean little. Their ends are just convenient places to bookmark while we dash to pee or grab a snack before dashing back to the book. Or turning out the light because we're utterly exhausted.

    THAT's for those of us who used chapters as containers for several scenes/scene summaries. For some very successful writers chapters contain a single scene, so chapter/scene are exactly the same.

  22. #22
    Possibly A Mermaid Queen Absolute Sage lizmonster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carroll View Post
    Basically a chapter is an organizing tool for writers. If we've captured our readers chapters mean little. Their ends are just convenient places to bookmark while we dash to pee or grab a snack before dashing back to the book. Or turning out the light because we're utterly exhausted.
    This, although I'd argue that the rhythm of the narrative = organization. But Laer's right: put them in where you need them, wherever that is.

    I had someone ask me once if it was a problem subbing a book that didn't have chapter headings - like McCarthy's THE ROAD. The person I was with started telling him agents would not even look at a manuscript without chapters, and I argued. I said agents would read a manuscript that compelled them, and if the writer thought chapter breaks weren't necessary, they shouldn't add them arbitrarily.

    And yeah, "no chapter stops" is on the extreme end of the spectrum, and this guy was probably not the next McCarthy - but maybe he was, and I wasn't going to be the person discouraging him from playing with words however he needed to. No agent/editor is going to read an opening and say "WOW THAT WAS AMAZING but no chapter breaks so here's the form R."
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  23. #23
    practical experience, FTW TellMeAStory's Avatar
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    Well, ladies and gents, with your kind and generous assistance, I have succeeded in applying chapters. I had no trouble putting them where my arc-lets made that obvious. Then, to prevent readers from losing interest, I re-wrote the last sentence or paragraph of each chapter.

    Near the end of the story, events are chugging along so inexorably that I didn't worry about that.

    Earlier in the story, because I'm writing about that kind of people, I made a POV character close out her chapter by having her firmly assert something about what she thinks is going to happen--that the reader knows isn't quite going to work.

    THANK YOU, AW-ers. I wouldn't have had the courage to attempt this without you.
    Last edited by TellMeAStory; 12-06-2019 at 03:22 AM.

  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW K.S. Crooks's Avatar
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    I plan my story by deciding what major plot events will take place in the entire story. I then make one or two occur in their own chapter. My stories tend to have a lot of travel. This makes having a new chapter occur when the characters arrive in a different location feel natural.
    Depending on your story a change could be going to another room; change in perspective, or the addition/removal of a major character to a situation. For example if you have a group of marines in a battle with mercenaries and the second in command of the unit is killed it may be time to start a new chapter. Generally a major change in location, perspective or circumstance is a good reason to start a new chapter.
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  25. #25
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Could it be that you're struggling with something like the story's structure? A well structured story usually lends itself to chapter format. Like what many others have said, each event in a story should serve the purpose of saying something to the reader, once that point is made, there should be a logical conclusion and break before the next point begins.

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