8 Tips for Composing Each Chapter of Your Novel

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8 Tips for Composing Each Chapter of Your Novel

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 7 “Editing” – Section 1 “The Chapter”

Many first-time novelists end up rewriting their first two or three chapters, trying to get them 'just right.' But the point of the first draft is not to get it right; it's to get it written - so that you'll have something to work with.”
-Matt Hughes

Recently, we've been working on all of the plot-points contained within a story and what function they serve to the overall plot. And if you've been following along with the “Write-A-Novel” exercises, and written a chapter for every plot-point, you now have a completed first draft of your novel. Now, it is time to work on editing and redrafting—which will be the focus of my next sequence of tutorials. Today, we are going to look at the structure of a “chapter”, including how to optimize it, format it, and construct it with purpose and precision; we will then narrow our editing focus from there, throughout the coming weeks.

Tip 1: Know the importance and purpose of chapter divisions.

We've talked a little in the past about how reading, even when done for enjoyment, is an exercise of mental fortitude. Just like people who play a physical sport, like soccer, just for fun will get tired and thirsty after a while and need a break, so will your readers. Chapters serve as a multi-functional tool for giving your reader a psychic “break” from the mental exercise of reading. First, the completion of reading an entire chapter subtly encourages your reader by making them feel like they've made progress—sort of like looking at the scoreboard and becoming encouraged by your own efforts. So even if your reader's rest is only the time it takes them to turn the page to the next chapter, they are refreshed by the transition. Second, a chapter break gives a reader who is too tired (or strapped for time) a place where they can safely put the book down for a while, so that they can rest for a little more prolonged a time. The other purpose that the chapter serves is specifically for the writer to give organization to their novel. Its like looking at a large and complicated math problem, and then choosing to simplify and work smaller parts of the problem that you have singled out and isolated from the rest, before tackling the entire problem.

Tip 2: Know your options for chapter divisions.

Beyond chapter length, there are a number of options that you have for customizing your chapter divisions and making them your own. One of the things I like to do, when writing, is to have all of my plot-points serve as their own chapter—creating a twelve-chapter novel. The result of this, however, is that some of my chapters become obnoxiously long (particularly the rising action, which is often large enough to serve for four chapters). My solution to this problem was the introduction of named and unnamed chapters. Whenever I break into a new plot-point I actually give the chapter a title, instead of just a number. I got this idea from some of the works of Stephen King, whose style is to sometimes break his chapters fully (meaning starting on a new page with a large margin above the text, like chapter breaks are typically done) and to sometimes have a smaller break if the chapter does not mark a significant shift in the plot (by simply having a paragraph break, a line of text that signifies the chapter progression, and then the continuation of the story). Giving a title to your chapters can also serve a variety of functions, from giving them extra meaning through poetic irony, to extra humor, to keeping you own purpose for the chapter organized. You can also include quotes underneath chapter heads (as I have begun doing in my tutorials). Or you can leave simple and organized numeration, which will hide your presence as an author and allow a different and more clear level of immersion into the story. There are many possibilities, and the important thing is to take personal pride in your choice and construct your chapter divisions with purpose, no matter which one you choose.

Tip 3: Create a three-act plot structure for each chapter.

Whether you choose to break your chapters at every plot-point, between plot-points, or inside of plot-points, the construction of your chapter will be more powerful if it is like a short story in and of itself (almost like a comic book, television show, or other form of episodic story-telling). This doesn't mean that you need a long and complicated 12-point plot outline for each and every chapter, more just a beginning, a middle, and an end that all serve to tell a small story within the larger one. By constructing your story like this, you assure that there is both a point to what you are writing at all times, as well as progression. Often, beginning writers in their attempts to get from point A to point B, create long, bland, and almost useless chapters that only serve to physically transfer the character from the castle to the lair of the dragon. Such blandness doesn't need to exist; every chapter should have the hero encountering a problem, growing from that experience, and encountering a climax where the he or she overcomes or is overcome by the problem. So if you need to get your hero from the castle to the dragon's lair, have them encounter a misadventure along the way—one that is relevant to your story, which helps the character grow, and which allows for their movement in the way you need. For example, you can have them meet an annoying, trouble-making goblin who tests the hero's patience as he travels, and eventually teaches in the confrontation/climax that sometimes bothersome creatures are more complex than just a monster to be killed. This would add complexity to the story by setting the hero up to deal with the dragon with a greater level of understanding and empathy. Doing this will make sure that every chapter is vital to the story, that your audience is not bored, and that your characters are always moving. Your chapter-breaks can always play into this structure, signifying the start of each little story or even signifying divides in the beginning, middle, and climax of each little part.

Tip 4: The shorter your chapter, the more inclusive it becomes.

Let's look at reading a story as a mental exercise—like a journey up a mountain—and at a chapter as a single trail up that mountain. As we all know, some people are in better physical (and mental) shape than others—not based on how good or smart or awesome that person is but simply based on past experience. Now, if you make a trail eight miles long, you are automatically capping how many hikers will attempt the journey up the mountain. They'll take one look at the length and be too discouraged to even make the attempt—or else become exhausted after just the leg of the journey and turn back. However, if each trail that leads up the mountain is only a mile long, with a rest area, food, and lodging at the end of each, many more hikers will feel up to the adventure—even if the mountain (the story) is the exact same size in either scenario. Readers are a lot like these hikers, more of them will feel able to tackle the challenge if you break it up into bite-sized chunks. They're still making the same strenuous and impressive journey up the same perilous mountain, but they will feel more able and ulitmately be able to grow in their ability to hike more. That being said, some hikers do enjoy challenge in and of itself (albeit a smaller number); so if you are writing a difficult sci-fi novel with intense political overtones for a small niche of readers who enjoy a challenge, it may serve you well to have longer chapters.

Tip 5: Make every chapter opening a hook.

While readers can learn to enjoy the journey that your story takes them on, particularly once they have spent enough time reading that they have fallen in love with your characters, that is not what drives them to begin the journey of reading. What drives them to begin reading your book can be an interesting cover or title, an interesting synopsis on the back, or an interesting first page—each of which serve as a “hook”. A hook, in simple terms, is any device which serves to interest you reader and drive them forward—usually an interesting situation that drives the reader forward by their desire to know more about it. This can take the shape of a farmboy learning he has magical powers, a highschool girl finding she's fallen in love with a vampire, or any other interesting scenario that would need to play out in an unusual and complex way. This principal functions in the midst of a novel as well as it does for the beginning, as every chapter opening can serve as a hook that introduces a new and interesting problem. These mini-hooks will drive your reader forward in an eagerness to discover the resolution to each new problem, while also watching the major plot dilemma slowly unfold.

Tip 6: End on a cliffhanger.

In the same spirit of opening every chapter on a hook to increase reader interest and story flow, you can also end every chapter on a cliffhanger. This is one of the secrets to writing a novel that readers call a “page turner” as the end of every chapter inspires them to move seamlessly to the next without ever slowing down. Now, this does not mean that you should fail to resolve the situation or “hook” that you presented at the beginning of the chapter, rather that you should resolve the climax and introduce a new problem after the previous one is resolved. The “hook” for the subsequent chapter then becomes an expanded situation or problem that was introduced by the previous chapter's cliffhanger. We see this a lot in sequential television shows and comics. The hero resolves a problem they've been dealing with throughout the entire episode, a new problem arises (like an ally becoming kidnapped), the episode ends, and then the next episode's hook (or situation) is a question of how the hero will be able to save his/her ally. Often, the cliffhanger is a very brief and shocking glimpse at the problem to come, whereas the hook will expound upon that problem in more detail. In addition, this will give you, the writer, a good starting place for when you begin writing the next chapter. You already have a problem to deal with, and you do not have to waste time twiddling your thumbs and looking at a blank document, waiting for inspiration for what will happen next.

Tip 7: Make sure you can name the objective of each chapter in one sentence.

Each chapter of your story should be purposeful to the overall plot, either directly or indirectly; and there should be no chapter that you are able to cut without losing something. That's not to say that every chapter has to have dramatic importance. To the contrary, your story will gain a more pleasant and diverse feel if some of your chapters are more lighthearted than others—especially in a comedy. However, each chapter should at least contain a little more revelation about your characters, some challenges, some growth, some physical progression toward the place they need to be next in the plot, and preferably some combination of all the above. One way to accomplish this is to be able to state, in one concrete sentence, what you hope to accomplish with that chapter. The way I do this is that I give each chapter a title, which summarizes my objective. For example, if my chapter is about my hero named Susan, who is a space adventurer, going to meet the antagonist for the first time, I might caption my title “Chapter 5 – Susan Meets the Alien Queen.” This gives me a goal to accomplish and ensures that every chapter moves the story forward.

Tip 8: After finishing a chapter, take note as to the status and changes in your characters.

As your story progresses, you can annotate all of your major characters' progress in three ways: through the overarching plot outline, their personal plot outline, and the world map. Taking note as to the status of your characters does a few things to help your story along. The overarching plot is the easiest of the three—particularly if you have created a chapter for each plot point—and will help assure that all of your characters are moving together through the unfolding core plot of your novel. The personal plot outline, particularly for the secondary protagonists, is essential for making sure that each of their entire stories are being told and not cut half-way though or glanced over—particularly when you have a large number of secondary or even primary protagonists. The world map helps you to keep track of where your characters are, physically—as nothing is more annoying than writing four or five chapters and then realizing that you left one of your characters in the woods or with time gaps that are unaccounted . Combined, these notes will ensure that your characters are changing and shifting within the story, making it a more fluid, alive, and dynamic experience for the reader.

Weekly Recommended Watching: Assassination Classroom (The story, in this anime, is told episodically and in three-part episodes—beginning, middle, and end. They also frequently have the sorts of hooks and cliffhangers that I spoke about above. Last, the show manages to tell a very tight narrative within the smaller narratives that comprise the episodes—a technique that can be replicated to a greater or lesser degree [depending on your style] in your own novel.)

Write-A-Novel Exercise 7.1

Choose a single chapter in Act I of your novel which best exemplifies the pace and tone of the rest of the story. Keep in mind, when choosing this chapter, that it will be the one critiqued by the group, the one you will use in all of these exercises, as well as the one you will use to cross reference with the rest of your novel when you work on your next draft (in order to transfer the same types of edits to those chapters as you have done to this one). Once you have chosen a chapter, use the tips listed above to redraft it.

Please do not participate in this exercise until you have a complete first draft of your novel. Criticism, given before a first draft is completed, has a powerful discouraging effect for the writer. Also, please abstain from making other sorts of edits to your chapter, as we want to make our focus as specific and precise as possible with each exercise.

For those critiquing, please make you suggestions only relevant to the topic at hand. We will be going through a large variety of editing exercises, and your critiques will serve best when given at the appropriate time. As always, please make your critiques honest and hold nothing back, while remaining polite and uplifting. We want to encourage one another to succeed by telling them the truth about their flaws while uplifting their strengths and potential.

Writers, I advise you to always keep a copy of every draft you've ever written, no matter how bad. The contrast is important for seeing your own abilities grow, as well as for teaching others later down the road. Additionally, having a backup copy of the original file will make you subconsciously feel free to redraft, cut, and change the text, as the original will always be there if you decide you liked it or some element of it better. So keep a record of all of the many drafts you will create.

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Graeystone's avatar
In my comic, I write out three page blocks which I personally consider 'chapters'. I'm about to do something that I don't think I've ever done before. I'm axing the 'ending' of the chapter and am going to rewrite it.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Cool :) That level of editing is a pretty big step.
Graeystone's avatar
I usually write/imagine the chapter in my head before I commit, compare the ideas to the rest of the story, then do the actual writing. What happened was that I was in full page writer mode, not comic book writer mode. What I did was a 'wall of text' for the comic page. One thing I've learned about comics is there has to be a balance between text and the art. What I wrote practically drowned the comic frame it was in. Even after a couple of rewrites it still didn't look right. At that point I thought - Screw it, I'll just redo the whole page.
artReall's avatar
Watchful-Bystander's avatar
This is wonderful. I've essentially settled past drafting my plot outlines and was a bit hesitant on devising some of my chapters. I knew not all of them would be "crucial" to the plot, but that's always what I was looking for. A bit of whimsy, relevant whimsy, here and there. The advice here is certainly helpful.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Glad you found it helpful :) And yes, the relevance doesn't have to be cut-throat critical to the plot to include it. 
rambowcomit's avatar
I've writen a book and I'm going to self publish it
turtleluz's avatar
Thank you - most informative.  I shall have to go back and read the other posts in this series. 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
You're very welcome :) I hope you find the others helpful. 
Tharcion's avatar
The problem here, of course, is that several quite successful authors don't use chapters. The most notable that immediately comes to mind is Terry Pratchett. The Colour of Magic was essentially a collection of short stories, so was broken into sections, but after that his books are broken as needed, usually by change of scene. You could call them chapter breaks, I guess, but you're stretching the concept.
Personally, I divide a book by theme into a variable number of (named) parts and then subdivide those using either a divider line or a location/date line. Primarily, breaks shift point-of-view, location, or mark a passage of time. I wouldn't consider myself successful in the Pratchett and Rowling scale of things, but I make a living. I think readers tend to have rather more tolerance for the physical structure of a book than many people give them credit for. Again personally, I couldn't care less about chapters, sections, or whatever, so long as the text is easy to read and the structure fits the flow of the story. Chapter breaks can be terribly clumsy weapons.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
That's not really a problem ... If that's what works for those authors, fantastic. Everyone has their own way of doing things. You'll need to read the first article in the series if you want to understand what this is about. I'll link it below. 

Tharcion's avatar
None the wiser, sorry. Don't worry about me, I really don't fit into your target audience. Chapters have been a bugbear of mine since I did a writing course about thirty years ago.
Steve-C2's avatar
Heh, some of the chapters from my series can be titled: "In which the protagonist tries desperately to avoid getting his arse handed to him, and fails in a spectacular manner"
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Ha, you could probably get away with actually doing that with some minor word variation in each title. It would be pretty funny. 
Ronron84's avatar
This was quite helpful to me as I try to rework one of my stories to make it better.  I'd taken a bit of a hiatus from writing for my artwork, so I'm a bit rusty! :)  I don't think I ever really thought about making each chapter have its own beginning, middle, and end.  It makes more sense to me now to do it that way instead of not knowing where to put a chapter break and ending up plopping a chapter break somewhere it doesn't belong!
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Glad you found it helpful :) It's helped me stop making as many pointless and boring chapters as I once did, haha. 
dragoneyesai's avatar
For those who do decide to watch Assassination Classroom, though... 

Bring your tissues for the end. And points along the road... and...

Just bring tissues.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Lots and lots of them ... though some happy crying too. 
Graeystone's avatar
"Try to settle on an average chapter length(number of pages)." While the story is meant to be a 'roller coaster', chapter lengths shouldn't be.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Many readers do appreciate consistency in chapter length. 
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