Structure of a novel: How to write a chapter



The structure of a novel is important because it helps readers to make sense of your story and can be satisfying in itself. What is a chapter? A numbered or titled section of a book. Many aspiring writers have questions on how to write a chapter. How long should chapters be? What is the best way to start or end them?  Why is it necessary to divide a book up this way in the first place?

What chapters do

It’s easy enough to read a short story in a single sitting. It might be set in a single house in a single small town. It might involve one character planning a party or hiding a dead body. The world of the short story is small in comparison to that of a novel. In a longer work of fiction, chapter breaks can function as road signs for the reader. ‘Slow down, this is important’, they say. ‘Warning! Detour ahead’. Dividing your story into sections that make sequential sense gives readers a more satisfying, digestible experience.

Chapters can also achieve powerful narrative effects through how they are structured. In Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved, the first chapter begins ‘124 was spiteful.’ This brief opening sentence is echoed in the opening of the book’s middle section: ‘124 was loud’. Referring to the street number of the house that is the setting for much of the story, this recurring opening structure creates a sense of something menacing recurring. In that way it is suggestive of ghosts (a fundamental symbol of the story) and trauma (specifically the trauma of slavery), since trauma often recurs where there is no intervention. In a similar way, chapters of your novel can be structured to emphasize the pivotal themes and ideas of your story.

Chapters create a larger rhythm in a novel – their structure also affects pacing. A chapter break gives your reader a brief pause for plot developments or character introductions to embed in memory.

You can also structure to leave readers with a burning desire to learn what happens next. A big plot reveal at the end of a chapter (example: a killer removes his balaclava and the person beneath is not who the reader expected) creates further questions that keep readers engrossed.

These are some of the essential functions of chapters, but what is a chapter’s ideal length?

What length works best for a chapter?

There’s no single perfect chapter length. A lot depends on your genre.

In a murder mystery or thriller, a chapter lasting 27 pages that includes extensive setting description and wandering dialogue will slacken the pace. Long, meandering chapters can create a sense of epic historical time, whereas shorter chapters keep the pace taut and tense.

A brief chapter that is only a page long (or even just a paragraph or two) can be used to poetic or dramatic effect, reinforcing the significance of an event. Unless the plot requires otherwise, aim for shorter rather than longer chapters. Many readers will appreciate being given manageable chunks of your story as opposed to an overwhelming slab of text.

One of the best ways to sustain reader interest using structure is to vary sentence length. Short sentences stand out. Longer sentences can be lyrical or can communicate something that a shorter alternative can’t. The same goes for chapters: Vary their length according to the tone and overall effect you want to achieve. Is a team of crack policemen closing in on the perpetrator in your crime novel? Shorter chapters at this pivotal time can create a sense of mounting tension and anticipation.

To recap, the ideal length of your chapter depends on:

  • Your genre and its conventions
  • The pace and mood you want to create

How to write a chapter: Getting internal structure right

Beginning for Beginners

The start of a chapter serves several important functions:

  • It ropes the reader into the scene
  • It either creates continuity or a surprise shift from the previous section (a change in point of view, time period, setting or style)
  • It gives the reader an idea of what the focus of the next part of your story will be

A strong chapter opening is most important at the start of your novel. Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds states that the first line is all important because if the reader says ‘that line was so damn good I’m in for the next 50 pages’, there is immediate commitment. Wendig makes a great analogy when he says ‘A good opening line is a stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.’ He describes the first chapter of a book as ‘the gateway drug to the second chapter’.

There are multiple ways to begin a chapter:
1. Starting in medias res (or in the thick of action). In gripping thrillers and other genres focusing on eventful action, starting in the middle of a tense situation is effective. This can avoid unnecessary introductory waffle that bores readers. As Glen Strathy says, ‘Too often, novice writers start their stories with unnecessary preamble that bores a reader and makes him stop reading.’

2. Scene-setting – In some genres (such as historical romance), beginning with a vividly painted scene is especially important as it helps readers obtain a mental picture of an unfamiliar place and/or era.

3. Beginning a chapter with dialogue is often useful as it creates immediate questions that beg answers: ‘Who is speaking? What are they talking about? What is their relationship?’ Opening with dialogue creates intrigue around both what is said and what is left out.

When beginning a chapter, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have a strong enough hook to make the chapter appealing?
  • Does it follow on from the previous chapter logically (and if not how can I make the shift less confusing for readers?)
  • Do I have a clear sense of what the chapter should contribute to the story?

Consider writing a brief two-line summary before you start each chapter. For a revenge novel, for example, you might write ‘In this chapter the reader will learn the villain’s motivation for killing the main character’s family’. Having a guiding sense of purpose will help you avoid wasting time writing scenes that are more likely to get axed in your final draft.

How to write winning chapter endings

Ending chapters is often challenging. Once you have momentum going, it can be hard to leave off a scene. Aaron Elkins, writing for Writer’s Digest, suggests to split a story into chapters whenever a story shift occurs. Says Elkin, ‘Changes of place, changes of time and changes of point of view are all excellent places for chapter breaks.’

Here are some places where it makes sense to create a break. Some might seem more obvious than others:

  1. Just before the climax of a significant story arc: This is one way to keep readers engrossed and is a classic trick of the thriller and mystery novel. Just when the reader has reached a tense moment she has to turn the page.
  2. After the climax of a significant event: If you have given the reader unrelenting tension and eventfulness, bringing a minor arc to an end provides an ideal moment to let the reader relax before new intrigues begin.
  3. Immediately after a development between two characters: An ending creates a sense of significance around it. A character might tell a secondary character fact about themselves or their history – something alarming or revealing, for example. By creating a pause with a chapter break, you signal to the reader that this information was important and is going to be important to your characters.The names you give your chapters can do good work for your story in themselves:

Naming your chapters: Attention, Focus and Orientation

In a guest post for Helping Writers Become Authors, Bryan Wiggins outlines 3 crucial purposes of chapter names:

1. Attracting the attention of readers
2. Finding and emphasizing each chapter’s focus
3. Orienting your fictional world and creating signposts that guide readers through your story.

There are many different ways to name chapters. A literary novel that doesn’t have any singular important theme or location might simply have numbered chapters. If, however, your novel is a historical epic spanning multiple countries and continents, consider beginning each chapter with the setting/location: ‘Paris, France’ or ‘Boston, Massachussets’. This immediately anchors the reader in a particular place.

Typescript from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Typescript of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

In novels where point of view (or POV) alternates between characters, you can start each chapter with the name of the character who is telling the story. This immediately indicates who is speaking and leaves you free to use the first person without having to identify the narrator continuously. In Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World, a novel about a triangular relationship between two men and a woman, this is used effectively as each character describes different fears, desires and personal histories in turn.

Alternatively you can use chapter titles to draw readers’ attention to important themes or events. In Virginia Woolf’s famous novel To the Lighthouse, a central section written from the point of view of time is simply called ‘Time Passes’. Each chapter within the section is then numbered starting from 1. Dividing your book into titled sections, and numbering each chapter within each section starting from 1 can create a sense of each part of your book being somewhat self-contained or focused on a particular place, time period, event or theme.

Chapters are convenient story units that you can move around as you want. Vladimir Nabokov wrote on index cards and would rearrange the chapters he wrote by shuffling the cards until he found a sequence that made sense as a whole. Whatever approach you use to structure and arrange chapters, planning what each chapter will cover before you start will give your story a sense of direction and purposefulness. Understanding how to write a chapter well will help readers fall into the rhythm of your novel.

Worried your chapters are unstructured or weak in another way? Get writing help from other writers on Now Novel and submit your work for helpful feedback.

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  • I think the best writing advice I’ve found on writing chapters is contained within this post 😉 Honestly, I’ve not seen this topic covered in many text books.

    I guess this approach focuses on creating a structure, not dissimilar to scene structure, but which operates discreetly to control pacing, progression, and so forth. Sharing this – it’s excellent!

    • Thanks so much for the kind feedback, Adrian. I’m glad you found this post useful! Thanks for sharing too. Yes I think structure can achieve all kinds of interesting effects, we often focus on the words themselves to the exclusion of considering structure and other equally important elements.

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