See You After the Break!
Welcome to the latest Everything's All Write podcast blog. Today, we're going to talk about chapters, particularly chapter endings. So, beginning at the beginning as we always do, what is a chapter? Well, you probably already have an intuitive feeling of what a chapter is and what a chapter is not, but let's put some concrete walls around these ideas.
Chapters are the divisions within a novel that help support the pace and structure. They frame the general flow of action throughout a novel. Short stories, by their nature of being short, don't need chapters in the way a novel does. To put it simply, and short story is often read in one sitting. A novel is not, because at the end of the day no matter how wonderful a novel is, most people are not going to sit down and read 500 pages without taking a break. In a sense, chapters are a way for both the author and the reader to set the pace at which the novel is dispensed and received. What this means for you as a writer is that your chapter planning should reflect the story arc, the action, and the pacing of that action within your piece. I personally like to think of chapters as the segments in a TV show and chapter breaks as the commercial breaks. They give the reader a chance to digest what has happened, to actually take a break (maybe they need to go to the bathroom), or it lets the previous chapter kind of sing on its own and resonate before jumping into something else.
For an author it can be a way of organizing your outline. I don't personally predetermine chapter length. I let the chapter length determine itself once I get writing. In that way, I'm kind of like a “Panster” writer, but I always begin writing for any chapter with a particular goal or set of goals in mind. For example, in this chapter I may want Lincoln to apply for job, get denied, and return home to an empty house. When I begin writing my chapter, I will have those three goals in mind as I write. Each time I check off one of those goals as being met it is because I've written that scene or that particular action into existence, and I know that I'm making progress on the intended purpose of this chapter. But anything that occurs organically as I write the character going through these actions I keep as part of the flavor of the chapter. I don't dictate the descriptive nuance, the encounters, or the dialogue per se, but I do want to make sure the purpose of my chapter is met. Anything outside of the primary purpose that arise organically usually adds depth and tension to my chapter in ways not always foreseen, and often, that is where the magic happens.
This is when you usually get questions like “how long should my chapter be?” Well, there are websites that will tell you specifically if your book is X number of pages long or if you're writing a horror story that each chapter should be about X number of pages. Personally, I do not subscribe to those formulaic interpretations. Chapters, as you can see in the various wide array of published books, can vary dramatically in chapter length. However, they rarely vary in chapter purpose.
Chapters generally share a positive correlation with your plot outline, and you should follow the flow of the action regardless of the number of words or pages that each chapter may be broken into. If a one-page chapter works in the flow of your novel, then leave it be. If a twenty-page chapter works in the flow of your novel, also leave it be. And both chapters can coexist in your novel. Chapter lengths can vary greatly between the confines of your novel. Don't be afraid of that. Chapters are kind of like the rhythmic clanking of a roller coaster. The roller coaster is mechanical, and, therefore, all the clanks are equidistant to one another, but they are building towards a single purpose. Your chapter is doing the same thing, but it doesn't have to be as mechanical and metronomic as a roller coaster because it is an organic and creative work. Therefore, varying lengths are absolutely appropriate.
Now, some people will tell you that each chapter should be almost a story unto itself with its own mini arc of problem, conflict, and resolution. I don't necessarily subscribe to that line of thought. Though most of my chapters do follow that outline, I do not require them to. I prefer a method where the characters kind of dictate for themselves where is a good break and what pacing is best to accomplish what they need to accomplish. Once again, as long as I check off those goals that represent my purpose for writing this chapter, I'm satisfied. And that purpose is not always conflict. That purpose could be informative, introductory, explanatory, or foreshadowing. As long as the purpose is met, then you should be in good stead.
As far as how to end it appropriately, I find most of my writing kind of naturally comes to a point of conclusion that feels good as a chapter break. You want to end your chapters in such a way that it doesn't disrupt or break the mounting tension or mood that you have created. But aside from that, you can break it wherever it feels natural. As I mentioned earlier, I like to think of chapter endings it as commercial breaks. They give the reader a chance digest what they’ve read or provides a safe space to pause for the day. I don't know about you, but I truly, truly hate bookmarking in the middle of a chapter. I have a feeling of completion and order when I can place that bookmark at the end of a chapter. Part of it's just the way my crazy brain thinks, but part of it is practical in the sense that if the bookmark is lost or dislodged, it is easier to find your place at chapter 23 as opposed to two paragraphs down on page 467.
So, now that we have the basics of what a chapter is, what a chapter does, and how you should approach it, let's look at taking those tasks on in a very practical manner. But don't worry! As usual I have a few tips and tricks that will help you along the way.
Tips & Tricks
Here are some tips and tricks to help you create the perfect chapter.
Tip #1: If you're a planner, then I would say start with your outline. Identify your story segments and cut them into possible chapters that correlate to the sections of your outline. Use these as guideposts to both indicate the likely number of chapters you will have, but more importantly, to note the pacing of those chapters towards the inevitable conclusion of your story.
Tip #2: If you're not the kind of writer that outlines your entire novel at the beginning, that's okay. What you can do as you sit down to write each chapter is plan out what the purpose of that chapter is. What are the specific goals or actions or interactions you expect to see in this chapter? This can be a very short bullet list, almost a laundry list of actions, that you will follow. And as long as you meet those actions then your chapter should be successful to its purpose. However, this does not mean you should write your chapter as a way of simply marking each of those items on your list. Indeed, our chapter should address its purpose, but as you write the creative explosion and impulses felt should still be followed to create the meat that surrounds the bones that are the purpose of your chapter. If you don’t, you will end up with the skeleton and skeletons are not nearly as interesting or engaging to read as a fully fleshed out plot or character.
Tip #3: Don't be so rigid with your outline or your goals to not allow for creative disruption. If you find yourself elbow deep into your chapter and you feel the flow of the story moving in a slightly different path than you planned that's not necessarily a problem. If you planned for the protagonist to visit their mother in this chapter but as you're writing you felt the need to include a bank robbery and your protagonist is caught in the lobby, you don't have to speed through it just to get to the scene where he meets his mother. Let the robbery scene grow and you can move that chapter goal of meeting the mother to the next chapter and then set a new goal regarding what you want to accomplish in the robbery scene. Now, at the end of your writing, when it's time for the editing process, you may go back and realize the bank robbery scene simply doesn't flow. It seemed to work in the moment, but it no longer applies, this is the time when you would edit or remove it entirely. But never throw it away!
If I've never said it before then let me plainly say it now. Never actually trash deleted scenes, lines, characters, or plots. Put them in a folder somewhere, save them in a file. I call my file the “graveyard.” In the future, I can all but promise you that you'll find wonderful gems for future writing often by going back to that graveyard and resurrecting a piece that didn't work for one project but may work beautifully for another.
Tip #4: Know when to end your chapter. These are small book segments; therefore, they can't go on forever. I like ending on a note of tension or a note of resolution or, in some rare cases, a note of intense emotional turmoil that can't easily be dealt with. But my absolute favorite ending is the mini cliffhanger. That approach is particularly useful in books and novels where you're going to switch scenes dramatically in the next chapter or shift POV's because, while you are providing new information and a new plot thread to follow the reader can't help but wonder what's going happen when they return to the previous plot line or the previous character. This means they are invested in that tension and want to follow it through. But at the end of the day, I choose to think of chapter endings as commercial breaks. I'm sure that most of us have watched enough TV at this point in our lives that we can kind of intuit where that temporary pause is, and once you can do that for a show that you're watching you can definitely apply the same criteria to your book. It doesn't even require a detailed knowledge of what that criterion is. You know it when you feel it, and when you feel it is time to end the chapter.
We have discussed what a chapter is, how it functions, and even how to go about creating the best possible chapter for your book. I think it’s time we put our pens where our words are and take on a challenge! Here is you’re bi-weekly Wordsmith Challenge!
This episode’s weekly challenge will be slightly different from those of previous episodes. What I'd like you to do is to give a short bullet pointed outline of the goals for one of your chapters. As mentioned earlier, this could be a short list of actions, interactions, reactions, or other points of explanation or information that you need to get across to your reader within this small segment of your book. Whatever your purpose is identify it for me in a short bullet list then give a few sentences telling me how you think this chapter will end. Nothing fancy required, just a few sentences of explanation or expectations. Once you've done that you can send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The best examples will be highlighted in a future episode and posted on the website.
And speaking of the best examples… Here are the previous winners for setting description and character voice.
Eric K. – Setting Winner
The grove of trees was verdant and pulsing with energy. The air seemed to “grow” even as the leaves rustled in a slight breeze. There was a chill in the air. A suggestion of winter. But it came with no force and was easily ignored by people. But leaves had already begun to die and fell to the ground at the notion of cold. Other plants were more rebellious and continued to the chant of grow. Summer had ended. Autumn was awake and dancing, but winter was stirring.
Ken B. – Character Voice
Gerald was a hard man from a hard life. He would tell people that. He would tell them that he was hard. He would say that he walked hard and hot roads to school. That his father’s hard hat was most favorite possession. He would explain how his hard and calloused hands were hated by his girlfriends, but loved by his dog, Buddy. Yes, Gerald would say everything about him was hard. But Gerald would be lying.
Congratulations, Eric and Ken! Keep up the good work. Remember, if you send in your work, it could be you featured on another episode of the podcast!
And if you don’t want to share your work, that’s okay too. The important thing is that you’re writing and trying something new. That’s how writing gets better! Even if you hate what you wrote, the practice will pay off. Keep writing and remember… Everything’s All Write!