The word ‘chapter’ comes from the Latin for ‘head’. Like a head, a book chapter is full of moving parts and vital functions. Learn how to write a book chapter that moves your story with insights from popular novels:
How to write a book chapter with purpose:
Effective story chapters hold an inherent sense of story purpose. To write purpose-driven, focused chapters:
- Make exposition action-oriented or concise
Long-winded exposition is often what readers mean when they say a book’s beginning is boring. Lead first chapters with action-oriented worldbuilding to keep things moving. Your genre affects how slow of a start you can get away with.
- Vary chapter length for story rhythm
Vary chapter length to create interesting large-scale rhythm. A good book, like a well-planned city, has short rides and longer detours.
- Draw readers in with emotion and connection
A good book chapter gives your reader something to connect with or relate to. Emotion, action, reaction. A relatable voice that goes straight to your reader’s head or heart.
- Ask how each book chapter affects GMC
Check how each book chapter affects characters’ goals, motivations and conflicts. How does a chapter further (or complicate) your characters’ journeys?
- Build cohesive imagery or juxtapose for contrast
How can successive chapters’ beginnings extend or develop imagery or ideas, or create a point of rupture or change?
- Plan chapters in waves of action and reaction
If planning a chapter and structure seem hard, think in waves of action and reaction. The unexpected happens, and characters react. Disaster leads to dilemma (and new solutions with their own consequences).
- Know how to end a chapter but extend the line
How to end a chapter so that your reader keeps on turning pages into the small hours? Read an example from a hit New Adult novel.
Let’s explore how to write a book chapter that builds intrigue deeper, with examples from popular novels:
Make exposition action-oriented or concise
‘Show, don’t tell’ is writing advice you’ll often hear. Yet why is too much telling the kiss of death for an engaging chapter?
Too much telling may limit immersion: If you say a character ‘saw something horrifying’, it may be a missed opportunity to show your reader what they saw, in the moment, through their eyes
Telling may slow pace: Good exposition does not read like an encyclopedia entry. Few readers want to read the population statistics of your story’s first-mentioned city. Instead, they want to experience life on its streets, eavesdrop on conversations in dark entryways (or on apartment buildings’ rooftops – see the final section for more).
So in how to write a chapter – especially an early chapter – K.I.S.S applies (keep it simple, Salinger).
This should be qualified: Literary and historical writing let you get away with less racy, event-driven exposition.
Even historical writing benefits from putting dry dates and figures aside. Have the wing of a biplane brush your reader’s head instead.
How to write concise expository chapters: Example
The first chapter of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (2014) is an example you may have seen on this writing blog before.
See how Doerr keeps worldbuilding and place-setting concise, action-focused:
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts. Turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.
The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of the beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.Anthony Doerr, All the LIght we Cannot See (2014), p. 3.
That’s it – two paragraphs make up the first chapter.
Note how many verbs Doerr packs into the description of a city on the brink of war during World War II.
Although no character has entered the scene yet, the first chapter holds a sense of imminent action and conflict.
The swirling and twirling of white in the streets holds suspense until we learn, only on line four, what the objects are – urgent evacuation orders.
Vary chapter length for story rhythm
There is no single ‘golden rule’ for how to write a book chapter, of course.
Doerr’s example above is excellent because it suits the tense scenario and creates fitting tone and mood.
There’s a sense of abandoned wartime streets and bunkering down in how clipped and spare his prose is, lie a street swept clean. The style almost mimics place, the mood of breaths being held before the first bombs fall.
Not every chapter in your book must necessarily be so concise or clipped, though.
In her writing manual Steering the Craft, Ursula K Le Guin talks about writing style in terms of knowing when to ‘crowd’ (pack words densely together), and when to ‘leap’ (let language fly with more space, air).
So crowd shorter chapters between longer ones. The answer to ‘how long should a chapter be?’ is, ‘It depends’.
A fantastic book to read for inspiration in chapter structure is William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (voted as one of the best 100 novels by The Guardian) where chapters range from a single page to many.
Draw readers in with emotion and connection
A golden rule for how to write chapter books (there are some rules, after all) is to draw readers in with emotion and connection.
If all that happens in chapter 1 is that your hero eats breakfast, chewing slowly, will your reader continue? Probably not.
In a book about writers and their mentors and muses, Alexander Chee writes about learning from Annie Dillard while at Wesleyan:
I can still hear her say it. Put all your deaths, accidents, and diseases up front, at the beginning. Where possible. Where possible was often her rejoinder.Alexander Chee, ‘Annie Dillard and the Writing Life’ in Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 writers on the people who changed their lives (2009), p. 60.
Deaths, accidents and diseases are some of the events readers empathize with – the things many fear (but also the life-changing turning points where immense change arrives). Not every book contains a death, of course. Yet we can think of it metaphorically.
Elsewhere, in her memoir The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote:
One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, quote via Goodreads.
Example of early book chapters with emotional hooks: Stephen King’s Fairy Tale
Stephen King’s Fairy Tale (2022) has been one of the year’s most popular fantasy reads (if in part due to the name and existing following of its author).
Although reviewers have been divided (some saying it is not one of King’s best), the novel does achieve this important step. It draws readers in with emotion.
We’re introduced early to protagonist Charlie Reade, whose mother has died and whose father has become an alcoholic.
The novel begins with narration in which 17-year-old Charlie tries to find a place to begin telling his story:
My problem – and I’m sure many writers have it, not just newbies like me – is deciding where to start. My first thought was with the shed, because that’s where my adventures really began, but then I realized I would have to tell about Mr Bowditch first, and how we became close. Only that never would have happened except for the miracle that happened to my father. A very ordinary miracle you could say, one that’s happened to many thousands of men and women since 1935, but it seemed like a miracle to a kid.Stephen King, Fairy Tale (2022), p. 1 (Kindle Edition)
We’re introduced immediately to a likeable teenaged voice, the uncertain voice of a ‘newbie’ and teenager trying to find the words for deep trauma.
The first chapter quickly flows to highs of emotions, hinting towards miraculous events in Charlie’s life, then trouble, too:
Only that isn’t the right place either, because I don’t think my father would have needed a miracle if it weren’t for that goddammed bridge. […] And now, thinking of those things, I see a clear thread leading up through the years to Mr Bowditch and the padlocked shed behind his ramshackle old Victorian.King, p.1.
But a thread is easy to break. So not a thread but a chain. A strong one. And I was the kid with a shackle clamped around his wrist.
Emotional highs and lows, both of mysterious nature, are implied, building intrigue for what comes in the second chapter.
Ask how each book chapter affects GMC
Each scene and every chapter in your book should further the narrative. No chapter stalls, says nothing. Says Annie Dillard:
Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.Annie Dillard, quoted in The Marginalian, Maria Popova, ‘Annie Dillard on Writing’, August 2013.
That sense of gears turning, action producing reaction, is vital, part of storytelling’s vitality.
How will each chapter shape your character’s goals, motivations, and inner (or external) conflicts? In foreseeable or unexpected ways?
A chapter may establish a goal or a conflict that will soon ensnare your character. Or it might show more of their reaction (their dilemmas and decisions) to the events of recent chapters. How they regroup, try again.
Read our complete guide to plotting and story structure for examples of action and reaction in planning scenes and chapters.
Example of writing chapters that impact GMC: The Maid
In Nita Prose’s 2022 debut mystery novel, The Maid, we meet Molly, a maid in a hotel.
In Chapter 1, we quickly learn that Molly relishes the anonymity of her uniform. How it allows her to disappear into blank service:
If I had to choose between my uniform and my trolley, I don’t think I could. My uniform is my freedom. It is the ultimate invisibility cloak. […] Apparently, I make awkward conversation, and if you believe the whispers, I have no friends my age. To be fair, this is one hundred percent accurate. I have no friends my age, few friends of any age, for that matter.Nita Prose, The Maid (2022), p.
But at work, when I’m wearing my uniform, I blend in. I become part of the hotel’s decor, like the black-and-white striped wallpaper that adorns many a hallway and room. In my uniform, as long as I keep my mouth shut, I can be anyone.
The novel has received criticism for the way it depicts neurodivergent women like Molly (though it is never explicitly stated that she is) on Goodreads.
This criticism and others aside, what Prose does do effectively is establish Molly’s desire to disappear into her vocation and become an ‘everywoman’, and her motivation (her awkwardness when not wearing the armor of a uniform).
The resulting conflict is Molly being framed for murder (the less visible also have fewer alibis).
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Build cohesive imagery or juxtapose for contrast
From chapter to chapter, you might build cohesive imagery or create striking contrasts through changes of viewpoint and other contrasts.
Writing book chapters that build cohesion: The Shipping News
As an example of cohesion-building imagery, E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Shipping News (1993) builds cohesion or connection from chapter to chapter in multiple ways:
Drawing chapter names from the same image world
Because Proulx’s novel is set in the Newfoundland coast and involved shipping, many of Proulx’s chapter titles are names of types of knot or words for rope.
For example, ‘Love Knot’ and ‘Strangle Knot’ are sequential chapters which detail the formation and breakdown of a romantic relationship.
Writing book chapters that contrast or delay resolution
Chapters may extend imagery and metaphors you’ve introduced in the story so far.
But new beginnings might also juxtapose or contrast clashing or opposite viewpoints, people, places.
If Chapter 1 is from a miner’s perspective, toiling away in a dark chasm, Chapter 2 could introduce the linked perspective of a friend or lover, somewhere sunny, totally different.
Chapter sequences create light and shade, this way. And when you leave one story arc unresolved to pick up another thread (left at an unfinished place), it gives your reader further reason to continue.
Example of chapter to chapter contrast: Love in the time of Cholera
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epic historical romantic novel, a sentimental man named Florentino Ariza pines his whole life for a woman, Fermina Daza, whom he meets when she is young and romanticizes.
The opening chapter ends with Florentino going to pay his respects after Fermina’s husband dies, many decades later. Here, he professes his love for her again, decades after she turned him down. The chapter ends:
… she slept, sobbing, without changing position on her side of the bed, until long after the roosters crowed and she was awakened by the despised sun of the morning without him. Only then did she realize that she had slept a long time without dying, sobbing in her sleep, and that while she slept sobbing, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than about her dead husband.Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), p. 51.
Marquez contrasts Fermina’s mourning, interrupted by Florentino’s return, with Florentino’s unbroken fixation, starting chapter 2 in the man’s POV:
Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, had not stopped thinking of her for a single moment since Fermina Daza had rejected him out of hand after a long and troubled love affair fifty-one years, nine months, and four days ago.Marquez, p. 53.
In this way from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2 we get a world of contrasts: Despair vs hope, letting go vs holding on. From chapter to chapter, there are dynamic contrasts – of emotion, desire – that prevent monotony.
Plan chapters in waves of action and reaction
Complex story structure and creating a full plot outline may seem daunting. You could plan chapters and scenes around simple story beats of action and reaction instead, though.
The example above of Marquez’s first and second chapters could be summarized as:
- Action: Florentino Ariza visits his old flame Fermina Daza to declare his love after many decades apart
- Reaction: Feelings begin to stir in Fermina Daza due to the visit
Some theorists describe ‘action’ story segments as a trio of events: Goal (what a character wants), conflict (the opposition the character finds) and disaster (the state of irresolution pursuing said goal leads to).
Reaction story segments then consist of ‘reaction’ (how a character reacts to preceding events), ‘dilemma’ (a difficult choice the character has to make – such as Fermina’s choice of how to respond to Florentino), then ‘decision’.
This gives in total a six-part story structure that ensures a chapter or scene contains an action and reaction arc.
Example of action and reaction in a first chapter: Northern Lights
In the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy series, Northern Lights (1995), twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua witnesses the Master of her college poison wine intended for her uncle while she is sneaking around the college.
You could summarize the action and reaction beats of the chapter as follows:
- Action: Lyra and her companion explore a forbidden area of Jordan College, Oxford.
- Conflict: They are interrupted by approaching voices and have to hide in a closet.
- Disaster: Lyra sees the Master of the college poison wine intended for her uncle, Lord Asriel.
- Reaction: Lyra stays put after debating making a getaway after what she’s seen.
- Dilemma: Lyra doesn’t know what to do when her uncle comes in and is about to drink the poisoned wine
- Decision: Letting out a cry that gives her hiding place away, Lyra ends up saving her uncle from drinking the poison.
Not every book chapter will have this exact structure, yet it can be a helpful guide for ensuring tension has peaks and valleys.
Know how to end a chapter but extend the line
A chapter thus may take a character from a goal to a conflict, disaster, reaction, dilemma, then decision. Yet how to end a chapter?
Extend the line. Uncle Asriel is saved, but… Fermina Daza’s old feelings for Florentino stir, but…
What intrigue continues beyond the end of the chapter?
How to end a chapter example: It Ends with Us
Turning to New Adult romance, Colleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us is a hit novel (amassing over 150,000 Goodreads reviews) about a young woman named Lily Bloom and her love triangle with a neurosurgeon named Ryle Kincaid whom Lily meets while sitting on a rooftop at night in Boston after delivering her father’s euology, and an old flame from back home.
In Chapter 1, Lily and Ryle have both been through recent traumas. Lily has just given an ‘anti-eulogy’ for her abusive father, while Ryle has lost a five-year-old in an emergency operation.
After an intense conversation on the rooftop where Ryle hits on Lily, he’s called away by a phone call from the hospital and the first chapter ends:
He looks down at his feet for a moment as he stands in somewhat of an unsure pose. It’s as if he’s suspended between the desire to say something else to me and the need to leave. He glances at me one last time – this time without so much of a poker face. I can see the disappointment in the set of his mouth before he turns and walks in the other direction. He opens the door and I can hear his footsteps fade as he rushes down the stairwell. I’m alone on the rooftop once again, but to my surprise, I’m a little saddened by that now.Colleen Hoover, It Ends with Us (2016), p. 25 (Kindle Edition)
Right before this sequence of events, Ryle takes a snap of Lily on his phone, as though to remember a person he won’t see again.
The chapter ending extends the possibility they could bump into each other again, which both characters seem to desire.
As a meet cute, there is a frankness (and a darkness) to their conversation that suggests a rapidly forming, intense connection. The ending with Ryle departing before the two characters can even exchange numbers creates a big ‘to be continued’. Future contact is not guaranteed.
Another way to think of how to end a chapter is ‘leaving the realm of possibility open and intriguing’.
What does a chapter ending need to do for you to keep you reading? Sound off in the comments.
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