Too many writers treat their chapters like tanks of gas. They take off without really knowing where they’re going, drive around aimlessly until they run out of fuel, sputter to a stop, and then they start the next chapter after someone takes pity on them and tows them somewhere new.
This is the wrong way to go about it.
A well-constructed chapter is almost a mini-novel. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It builds to a climax. It transitions toward the next chapter, as if the entire novel is a series of mini-novels.
In other words, chapters are the building blocks of novels, and constructing them well is something writers don’t often think enough about. Would you build a house with misshapen and poorly constructed bricks? I dare say you wouldn’t!
Here’s how to give your chapters drive.
How to start a chapter
I’m convinced that there are two very simple but very crucial ingredients you need at the start of every chapter:
- Establish the setting with key details so the reader can physically situate themselves in the scene.
- Establish the mindset and mood of the protagonist and what they want to accomplish. (They do want things right?)
That’s it! So simple and yet so important. If these two elements aren’t present you may risk the reader either being confused or having their attention wander. Go back and look at your favorite novels and chances are you will see these two elements at the start of every chapter, even though you never noticed they’re there.
In fact, I believe in this so strongly I actually weave mindset and setting into my novel outlines. They’re magic.
Now, as you’re establishing your character’s mindset, you don’t need to set out a literal checklist of things they want to accomplish, but it is helpful to make sure the reader has a sense of their goals and where their head is at.
Understanding what the protagonist wants will refresh the reader on where they are in the story and keep the reader engaged and invested as they read on to find out if the protagonist is going to get the things they want.
Once you’ve established the physical setting and the character’s mindset, it will create an open question. Is the character trying to find the bad guy? Convince their love interest to kiss them? Survive a day at school?
Then they encounter obstacles in the course of trying to pursue that goal. Maybe they miss the bus, maybe their love interest thinks they smell, maybe the villain was standing right behind them all along.
Whatever it is, the character should be trying to move toward their goal in as active a manner as possible, but are thwarted in their pursuit. This creates the conflict that makes your novel interesting.
If you’re not sure what should happen in a chapter or how a character should get from Point A to Point B? Throw some obstacles in your character’s way and things will start getting interesting rather quickly.
Build toward a climax
Whatever happens, the events should steadily build in intensity over the course of a chapter before culminating in an exciting, intense, or thought-provoking climax, whether it’s the resolution of a gun battle, a profound moment that passes between the characters, or even a somewhat quiet realization that nevertheless shifts the narrative.
Every chapter doesn’t need to end with a fireworks show, but there should be a moment of punctuation that feels somewhat definitive.
If the most important event in a chapter happens in the middle, you may leave the reader wondering what happened to the momentum. If the chapter doesn’t end in a compelling place, your reader may not want to start the next one. If the chapter wanders around aimlessly without building toward something, your reader might start losing interest.
If you know what the most important moment in the chapter will be, you can build toward it. Keep it in mind as you construct the rest of the chapter and steadily ratchet up the tension, thinking about how you can build a sense if intensity as that moment approaches. Being cognizant of this organization will help give your chapter a shape.
If you don’t know what’s going to happen before you start writing a chapter, just get it all out there. Take the tank-of-gas approach and write until you’ve exhausted everything that could possibly happen in the chapter. But then, once you’re done, re-read the chapter, see where the most important event occurred, consider combining different elements into one important moment, and then reconstruct the events so that the important event is as close to the end of the chapter as possible.
Chapter breaks are magical
If you can’t think of a way to reorder the events, or if there are multiple important moments, consider inserting a chapter break in the middle and making it two chapters.
Chapter breaks are one of the most versatile tools in your writing arsenal. They can punctuate the climax of a scene. They can be used to change the scenery or skip over unimportant events. The next chapter can begin in the next instant after the last one finishes, or it can pick up hundreds of years later. You can use these breaks to create unbearable tension or to give the readers a breather.
And, importantly, you can also use them to create a cliffhanger.
The key to crafting a great cliffhanger is to construct the climax of a chapter so that its resolution opens up even bigger questions. Think about the fate of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter novels, Han Solo being frozen in carbonite in Star Wars, or “Who shot J.R.” on Dallas.
If you think about the great cliffhangers in narrative history, they’re always about dangling an important question and making the reader wait for the answer.
Dan Brown uses these to great effect in The Da Vinci Code, which has a breakneck pace that is propelled in part by the way he uses chapter breaks to leave questions unanswered until the next chapter. The chapter break heightens the mystery and builds suspense by forcing the reader to wait a bit and then re-engage with the narrative before the answer is revealed.
Do you have any tips for organizing chapters? Take to the comments!
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Art: The Architect’s Dream by Thomas Cole
JOHN T. SHEA says
I’ve often wondered about that painting. Is that a huge BOOK under the guy? How did he get up onto the top of that column? Won’t he roll off if he dozes? Oh wait. It IS a dream!
But, what was the question again? Oh yes, chapters! I’ve always liked the very short chapters employed by Arthur C. Clarke and, more recently, James Patterson. In truth, they’re so short their chapter breaks are more like the line breaks other writers use within chapters. They certainly seem to encourage reading, since one is always tempted to read just ONE more chapter, and so on!