Long ago in the far away of my writer’s training, I was taught to focus on my plot, write it according to valid story principles, and relax in the knowledge that chapters would take care of themselves.
But although this Zen approach works for me, I’m asked about chapters enough to realize that not everyone understands what chapters are, what they do, why they’re structured as they are, and what their purpose is.
Now I haven’t bothered to research the history of chapters or when they first came about in the musty tomes of past literature, but my guess is that they were devised to aid readability, just as the Bible was divided into chapters and verses at some point. If the family gathered around the light of a candle in the evening and listened to someone reading aloud, chapter breaks were useful in providing a stopping point so that weary folks could go to bed.
Modern authors have put a different spin on this by building in hooks and plot twists to make it difficult for a reader to stop at the end of a chapter. We want readers to remain enthralled, unable to put the book down.
So what, then, is the structure?
I might as well say now that there are no particular rules about what makes up a chapter, much less how long it should be. For example, my favorite chapter of all time occurs in Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. It consists of one sentence: “And nothing else happened for the rest of the night.”
Most chapters, though, run longer than that. If you’ve read a LOT, then you should have a pretty good idea of how material is grouped together. Some writers make a chapter of each scene. That worked pretty well a couple of decades ago, when scenes were long and thorough, running perhaps 10-12 manuscript pages. But today, scenes tend to be shorter and tighter. We have authors who specialize in what I call scene fragments, where they hit the heart of the conflict and break away quickly to some other portion of the plot. (John Sandford is a master of the scene fragment, although he doesn’t write all of his Prey thrillers that way.)
These days, scenes and chapters alike are growing shorter. Why? We live at a faster clip. We are inundated with more and more information–valid and useful, or not–and much of what we encounter is telegraphic to fit tweets and sound bytes.
This reduction within chapters has happened gradually during the 21st century. Although I’ve known about the trend, I hadn’t really noticed the difference until I recently started converting some of my backlist titles to digital versions for Kindle’s platform. (Then I saw how long my scenes used to be, and how my book chapters usually featured at least two scenes bridged by a sequel.)
Feeling confused yet?
Okay. Let’s simplify the topic. Don’t worry about whether you have a one-scene chapter, a one-sequel chapter, or a combination of the two types of dramatic units.
Instead, think about a chapter as a division of story that opens with a grab for the reader’s attention and builds to a hook at its conclusion.
The chapter’s content should span a single event that’s written as a scene of conflict. Or it should span a series of incidents related in narrative summary where the protagonist is pursuing some objective.
For example: Let’s say Paul Protagonist wants his mother to loan him her house in the Hamptons so he can throw a big party.
He calls her. No answer. He texts her. No answer. He drops by her Park Avenue apartment, but she’s not at home. The manservant tells him that she’s at her favorite spa, getting a facial. So he goes there and finally tracks her down. Coated in mud and up to her neck in a boiling hot tub, Mom peels the cucumber slice off one eye and glares at him.
“Are you nuts?” she asks. “Of course you can’t borrow my house to throw a party. The last time your friends were in there, you let an elephant knock down the kitchen walls.”
“I didn’t bring the elephant,” Paul assures her. “I won’t invite the guy who did.”
“Absolutely not,” Mom replies, sticking the cucumber slice back in place. “Go hire a house if you want a party.”
“Hire one? Hire one? It will cost me a fortune, and I have to pay for caterers and booze.”
“The people next door are renting their place for events. Cheaply, I understand. Try them.”
“But they’re Russian vampires.”
“I know, darling. Such tacky people. How they ever got into our gated community, I don’t know. They keep trying to join the country club. So tiresome, but try them anyway. Now leave me alone.”
Okay, this is admittedly a very silly example, but it demonstrates how Paul has pursued his objective in several ways through scene and narrative clustered around the common goal of finding his mother.
Now, because she won’t cooperate, he must form a new objective and decide whether he’s going to approach the vampire neighbors or do something else. But that should fall into a new chapter.