When to break a chapter

Blank_page_intentionally_end_of_bookYesterday morning, over on my Facebook page, I got an interesting question from my first, longest-time fan (hi, Mom!). I’d been commenting on Facebook the past few days about the progress I’ve been making on my new novel and, in the space of two posts and a comment, I had declared that I’d finished a chapter after adding 800 words to it — then that I’d kept thinking about the chapter and added another 400 words — and finally that I’d stayed up late the other night and written yet another 500 words. After that last bit, I posted, “NOW it’s finished. (I think.)”

Which is when my mother chimed in: “How do you decide when a chapter is done and you need to write a new chapter?”

And man, is that ever a good question.

First, a little history (and I’m just spitballing here — don’t take this as gospel): chapters are not inherent to the novel. The form, which has only been around the last few hundred years, never needed chapters to make sense, and sure enough, some of the earliest examples, like Pilgrim’s Progress, didn’t bother with chapters (Pilgrim’s Progress is divided into two books, but each book is an unbroken whole). Other early novels broke into chapter-like chunks not because of any rule but because of their narrative structure: consider Robinson Crusoe, which plays with epistolary and diary forms and so looks like it contains chapters according to the natural breaks of days or weeks. As the form evolved, it began to organize itself into more episodic plots, as in Gulliver’s Travels and Tom Jones, and that episodism (a word?) played into serialization in the 19th century, as with Dickens and Dumas and Stowe.

The contemporary novel owes a lot to those early forms, but I also think it owes as much to the short story, with chapters becoming almost little self-contained arcs in their own right. And perhaps it also owes something to serialized film, with the use of the “cliffhanger” (a word we get from cinema) as the endings of chapters, something to make us want to keep pressing on into the next chapter to find out what happens (and that’s how you get a “page-turner”).

Over time, we have developed a kind of convention around chapters in novels, and I think most conventional writers tend to think of chapters in a book in much the same way they think about paragraphs in an essay or scenes in a story. These are all various ways of “chunking” text into consumable segments, as much about reader-friendliness and visual aesthetics as about narrative craft.

But these techniques and conventions are not and never have been any kind of rules. You can start a new chapter any time you start a new narrative perspective, or any time you shift scenes. You can end a chapter at the climax of a narrative or emotional arc, or you can follow the arc through and end a chapter at a kind of mini-resolution. You can break chapters for thematic shifts, or stylistic shifts. You can treat chapters like bits of flash fiction, individual scenes, and fill a book with hundreds of tiny one-page or one-paragraph chapters. You can borrow from Faulkner and have a single-sentence chapter. (“My mother is a fish.” Brownie points to any reader who can name that novel without cheating!) You can run chapters into each other and make no breaks at all — just keep the story rushing at us page after relentless page.

Novels and their chapters, if they have any, can do whatever they want.

So that second-person address in my mother’s question is important here: she’s not asking how one knows when to break for a new chapter — she’s asking how I know.

For me, some of this decision-making process is down to plotting, and it’s why, even though I dislike the prescriptiveness of outlines in general, I often need to outline novels. But when I do an outline, I’m usually thinking in terms of story structure, not novel structure: the former is about narrative arcs and character developments, but the latter is just about how the pages will stack and break in print. And I try not to worry about those sorts of concerns until the end.

Some of this, though, is down to the feel of a story’s structure. That’s as much a readerly act as a writerly one. You can probably recall a book where the chapters seemed to short to you, or one where they seemed to drag on too long. You might have been right — those short chapters might have benefited from getting combined with other chapters; those long chapters could probably have been broken into smaller chunks.

As a writer, you can, with practice, develop a similar instinct. You are, after all, your own first reader. When I draft, I usually just keep after a chapter until it feels like it’s finished, the same way I might write a short story until the story gets told. I’ve written before, regarding short fiction, about how I know when a story is finished. And I think in a lot of respects, I use those same guidelines when thinking about chapter breaks — and I confess, I do often think of chapters in terms of miniarcs, little short stories adding up to a whole.

But that’s just a general idea, and the truth is, every book is its own creature and needs its own structure.

Here’s something fans of Hagridden might not know: for the first several drafts, I basically ignored chapters. I included breaks, but I formatted them like extended scene breaks, just a little extra space on the page, because I wanted that novel to run together in one continuous narrative, everything all one story. (That’s also one reason I skipped the quotation marks.) And the chapters I had were fairly long, too — the first chapter in my drafting stages, for example, got broken into chapters I and II in the published version.

My publisher is the one who suggested breaking the chapters into shorter, “more readable” segments and numbering the chapters to keep things organized on the page. And I think the folks at Columbus Press were right about that.

Which is one way of answering my mother’s question: Sometimes, I don’t know when a chapter is finished and when it’s time to break for a new one. Sometimes, those are decisions that editors, as readers, can better make.

But in the meantime, here I am drafting a new novel and, once again, I’m making writerly decisions about when to break chapters and what those chapters are trying to accomplish before I end them.

And while the new novel is set not long after and not far away from the setting of Hagridden — I’m still wrestling with the Civil War and its aftermath; I’m still writing desperate, violent characters trying to find their way in a desperate, violent world; and I’ve hopped only one state west into Texas — the new book is quite different from Hagridden. It deals with a longer time frame, measured not in a year or so but in decades, and it contains a much larger cast of characters. It’s also dealing with different issues, including connectedness, what constitutes a family, and how to live with the memories of our misdeeds. So this novel requires a very different (and more expansive) structure, and for this draft, I’m working with at least two narrative perspectives and at least a handful of entangled storylines.

Because of these issues, I’m intentionally playing with chapter lengths, including some chapters that are longer not because I just feel like writing long chapters but because that stretch of story needs more room, more pages. But I’m also working with a slightly more episodic structure and with different time periods, each reflecting on the other, and to keep those things straight on the page, I’m also working with some shorter chapters, little transition moments or “punctuations” on plot or emotion.

My current (but certainly not my last) iteration of my chapters outline, in Scrivener.
My current (but certainly not my last) iteration of my chapters outline, in Scrivener.

In fact, I’m so aware of how these chapters are playing against each other that, in an unusual process for me, I’ve actually outlined the chapter structure. In fact, I’ve done this several times — the writing keeps leading me in unexpected directions and I keep scrapping old outlines and starting new ones. The current chapter outline shows me the first handful of chapters, though I’m already seeing ways that will probably have to change.

I’m also trying to bear in mind some advice I got when I workshopped this novel at Sewanee this summer: my faculty mentor, Allen Wier, and several of my workshop readers gave me permission to slow down, to let the story breathe a bit more on the page (because of my short story training, I frequently want to rush novel drafts). And that’s what’s been happening with this particular chapter I kept finishing and then adding to this week.

It went like this:

I knew the beat this chapter needed to strike in the scheme of the whole novel, so on the first pass, I just tossed in a starting paragraph and some plot notes. On the second pass, I fleshed out those notes, like finishing an assignment, and because I’d done what I’d set out to do, I called it a day.

On the third pass, I actually set about filling out the sentences, cleaning up the prose, and wrapping up something that felt like a complete segment, a finished chapter. And that’s when I wrote those initially triumphant 800 words.

But as I went to bed that evening, I kept thinking about the brevity of the chapter, about the character’s motivations and his environment. It helped, by the way, that I’m currently reading Christian Kiefer’s beautiful novel The Animals, and Kiefer does a thing I strive for in my own work: he writes fantastic natural description, swooping in on these glorious little details of the natural world and making them so integral to the characters and the story they inhabit. And I realized I needed to add some of my own character’s world into this chapter I’d written, so I left the bed and sat at the dining table in the middle of the night and added another 400 words. And that was what I needed — the narrative beat and some important setting details that reveal a bit about the character.

But then, when I next sat down to write and was rereading the chapter to get my head in the right place to move forward, I realized I hadn’t revealed anything about this character’s motives. I’d dropped him into a world and then set him on a path, but he didn’t have any obvious reason to be on that path. I knew the reason, but the reader didn’t. So I added another 500 words, some within the existing text and some in a new scene that pushed me past what I’d thought was the end of the chapter. (I love pushing past the obvious ends of things.)

After all that, do I finally know this chapter is finished? No. I think it is. But at least two things could change that: One, I could write something later that makes me rethink this chapter, adding more in order to make it better fit with later material, or deleting things that later story changes or contradicts — even just tossing out the chapter altogether. And two, some reader down the line — an agent, an editor, a publisher — could suggest changes to the chapter.

But for now, whether this chapter is finished or not, I know it’s time to start a new chapter, because if I really wanted to, I could spend the next six months just working on this one short chapter, and I still have a whole novel to finish writing! And ultimately, that’s as good a reason as any to call a chapter finished: it’s time to move on.

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9 thoughts on “When to break a chapter

  1. Wonderful! Thank you. I write poetry. I guess you could say my writer brain works in short-shorts. I would like to try writing a short story or a novel, but I wasn’t sure how to think like a novelist. This is the best explanation of a novel writer’s process I’ve read. It was specific to you, but it makes perfect sense to my brain. Now I just need a story idea. Hmmm…More to think about. I’ll definitely pass this along. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you, Melinda! I’m the reverse — I’m in awe of poetry but I have to work awfully hard to craft it. I do try to borrow from poetry at the sentence level in my fiction, though; I love that attention to language, to meter and image and line structure.

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