Writing a good novel calls for an adept handling of numerous fictional elements and techniques. It means enabling your readers to experience the world of your characters, not just to be told about them. To do this, you must be able to get into your characters’ minds, hearts, and souls – and, above all, learn how to dramatize, creating riveting scenes.
Among the many guidelines and tips on writing good fiction – characterization, plotting, showing versus telling – one issue doesn’t get much press: How exactly does one successfully divide a novel into chapters?
At first blush, that might sound easy. Every 10 or 20 pages or so, you end one chapter at a convenient spot and move on. Simple, right?
Hardly. Like most aspects of novel writing, this can be a demanding task, involving the intricate relationship of part to whole.
We turned to several successful novelists for their ideas and recommendations on developing and structuring fictional chapters.
What does a novel chapter need to accomplish? Does it need to achieve a certain unity in terms of character or plot development? Does it need to attain a certain completeness? What exactly is the function of a chapter?
One thing we know is that a chapter is a breaking point.
For Thrity Umrigar, author of eight novels, including her most recent, the acclaimed Honor, a chapter break gives the reader a chance to take a breath. “A line break is more like several breaths. A chapter break is an even more profound pause.”
“There are no rigid rules here,” says Umrigar, “but imagining the most effective kind of pause helps me understand where the breaks need to be.”
Phong Nguyen, author of three novels and two story collections, agrees that there are no guidelines set in stone here. “If a writer is struggling with where to demarcate a chapter, I doubt that looking at a set of rules or criteria will be helpful,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that it is all done ‘by feel’ but rather that hewing to rules might oversimplify an important process of trial and error.”
“A beautiful book is only as good as its individual chapters.”
What else can – or should – a chapter do besides functioning as a breaking point?
“Chapters are discrete entities with their own integrity but serve a larger purpose,” Umrigar says, functioning “as individual engines that power a story and move it along.” They should be as pleasurable to read as a short story, since “a beautiful book is only as good as its individual chapters.” That said, a chapter “cannot be a show horse – it should act in service to the entire novel; its main function is to pass the baton to the next one,” Umrigar reminds us.
Ronna Wineberg, author of Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, On Bittersweet Place, and Artifacts and Other Stories, sees the matter in similar terms. “A chapter in a novel is a discrete unit with its own rhythm and structure. Each chapter should help move the book forward, advancing the plot or deepening character development or just capturing a reader’s interest.”
Put another way, says Donna Hemans, author of River Woman and Tea by the Sea, “chapters should have a little problem connected to the overall plot that you want to solve.” The options for this problem are varied, involving “a single scene or multiple scenes, and a resolution that asks additional questions and gives your reader reason to want to turn the page.”
For her, chapters are mostly an organizational tool or structural device. For example, “chapters could delineate time, with each chapter representing a specific day or week or hour,” she says. “With a story with multiple points of view, each chapter may give the point of view of a specific character and may even allow the writer to alternate between first and third person or multiple separate third-person viewpoints.” Regardless of a chapter’s particular organization, “it helps readers have a clear sense of a chapter’s architecture.”
“If a writer is using multiple points of view,” agrees Wineberg, “it’s fine to switch points of view within a chapter.” She notes an important exception, however: “Sometimes chapters in a novel are narrated in various characters’ voices. One chapter is told from the perspective of character A, the second chapter from the point of view of character B, and so on. When this is a novel’s structure, it would be confusing to then switch points of view within a single chapter.”
Plot and structure are crucial in managing character conflict. According to Nguyen, “A provisional definition of a novel chapter for my own writing purposes is an episode that culminates in a momentary resolution.” Some writers might introduce a conflict that isn’t resolved until later in the novel, but he sets out to “write each chapter so that something is resolved by the end, even if that conflict rears its head again later on, or if the resolution is minor compared to an overarching conflict.”
For Nguyen, as for Hemans, the options for what goes into a chapter are wide-ranging. A chapter “can span multiple timelines and encompass multiple perspectives, as well as being a single scene or even a single paragraph.”
“Chapters can be about anything the writer chooses,” says Wineberg. “A chapter can be a single scene as long as this propels the book forward in some way. Chapters don’t need to complete the action that occurs in them or be a definitive assessment of characters.”
According to James Scott Bell, a prolific author of thrillers and numerous books on creative writing, “a chapter is simply one section of a larger whole. A slice of a pie. That slice can be thick or thin.” Unlike in the past, he says, when chapters were more similar in length, today the “length, function, and strategy of a chapter is whatever the author wants it to be.”
When we think of chapters, we tend to think of dramatic scenes.
“I try to write cinematically,” says Bell. “We are a visual culture now, steeped in movies, TV, YouTube, and TikTok. A scene is highly flexible in terms of function and length. You can have big scenes, small scenes, even just an establishing shot. Again, whatever the author needs it to be. Just not ‘too long.’”Originally Published