Chapters are a practical way to break up a novel and create an effective overall story structure. You want your reader to stay with your story for 200 or more pages. Chapters give them a way to take a natural break from reading and come back refreshed and ready for more.
In the classic linear structure, the beginning of the chapter is balanced out by the end. The chapter alludes to the overall progression of the story and ties in the most relevant pieces of information. This is largely what keeps the reader’s interest during the slower parts of the book, and aids in building anticipation for new plot points or chapters.
Chapter breaks help control the pace of your story, and entice readers to continue.
What Is the Function of a Chapter?
Each chapter builds a sequence in the framework of your story. You want your chapter to hit the right notes for its place in the story. Your chapter may be the focus of a major plot point, or it may transition the reader from one plot point toward the next.
Knowing where the chapter fits will help you keep the focus on moving the story forward. Using a chapter for major plot points increases tension, expands character development, and raises stakes as the story progresses.
Each major plot point in your novel is essential for building a story that avoids episodic repetition. The six key plot points are:
- Inciting incident
- First plot point
- Pinch point
- Pinch point
Your chapter will mirror this progression on a smaller scale, containing its own version of each point to keep your reader moving forward.
As you write your chapter, create elements that point the story toward the next plot element.
There’s no secret formula for how to write a good chapter. What’s important is that you understand what makes a good chapter, and work towards that goal.
Every chapter gives your reader a sense of your story—the characters, setting, tone, and action—to guide them through the challenges, wins, and failures of your protagonist.
These guidelines will help you achieve chapters that work within your story framework so readers relate to your story.
There Are No Rules for Novel Chapters
Chapters are artificial breaks in a story created by the author. There are no hard and fast rules on how to create chapters, how many in a novel, or how long each chapter needs to be.
This article offers guidelines for creating natural breaks in your story, but in the end, how you use chapters is up to you because the writing process is individual for everyone.
Literary fiction writers may be creative in determining and structuring chapters. Many authors may find reader expectations useful for determining chapter length and the number of chapters.
That said, let’s look at some chapter conventions and how you may choose to address them in your novel.
Proactive and Reactive Scenes
One positive design pattern for structuring sequences in a story, whether scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter, is alternating proactive and reactive scenes.
Randy Ingermanson of The Snowflake Method considers these alternating scenes the building blocks of a good story.
In his words:
A Proactive Scene begins with a Goal, continues through most of the scene with Conflict, and concludes with a Setback.
A Reactive Scene begins with a Reaction, continues through most of the scene with a Dilemma, and concludes with a Decision.
The way you write the scenes provides an anti-formulaic feel to the story.
A major benefit to using this approach to scene and chapter writing is that it automatically controls the story pacing. Chapter sequencing helps you keep your story flowing and keeps your reader reading.
What Should Be Included in a Chapter?
The beginning of the chapter is the setup for what happens next. Get your reader into the story right away. The character has a goal. The chapter (scene) goal is something your character wants to accomplish now to reach the main story goal.
The main plot objective is hinted at. The character’s chapter dilemma adds to the tension as you reveal the consequences of their actions.
Starting the chapter in the middle of action, in medias res, is one of the best ways to bring your reader back into the story. After their break from the preceding chapter, you want them to jump right into what happens next.
Let your reader know how much time has elapsed since the last chapter. A simple phrase is enough. Use phrases like that afternoon, the next morning, two days later, and then jump into the story.
Ground your readers in the setting. Make sure it’s clear where your characters are. Are they in Mike’s flat? On the street? In the woods? By the shore? Add setting details to bring the setting to life.
A solid way to do this is through the chapter character’s five senses. He sees Mike’s dirty dishes. She jumps off the curb to avoid a careening drunk. He’s surrounded by the scent of pines and decaying leaves. The crashing waves obscured Joan’s cries for help.
You get the picture. Make sure the setting becomes real for your reader.
3. Conflict and Obstruction
Whatever your chapter character’s goal, you create something that obstructs their progress. The potential outcome of the conflict creates tension. Tension keeps readers turning pages.
Assign the typical obstacles to success to keep the tension level high. Early in the chapter action, decide what needs to happen as a result of the conflict. How will the character respond? Will the hero succeed or fail? What are the consequences of success or failure? What emotional reaction will your character have?
The chapter ending is the most important part of a chapter because it (usually) decides which way your book will go. It can be a cliffhanger, an emotional breakdown, or just something small to reassure the reader. It’s when they realize their patience has been rewarded.
Approach the chapter ending with the idea of tantalizing the reader to continue. Here are a few suggestions of traditional methods to end a chapter:
Promise: Hint or foreshadow what will happen next in the story.
Resolution: Look back or review what has happened before. Summarizing what preceded the chapter end refreshes the events in the reader’s mind. Especially after a big decision or the conclusion of a problem, this helps the reader wonder about what will come.
Cliffhanger: A phrase that comes from old serialized stories, where the character ends up in a dire situation at the end of an episode. Use them sparingly.
Story Change: The end of a time period or a point of view. The following chapter may be several years later or be told from a different character’s point of view.
5. Events and Action
Whether the action in your chapter is a battle, a fight scene, or a character making a decision, lead your reader through as though your chapter were a mini-story. Create a beginning with a character goal, a middle with conflict and results, and an end that hints at what comes next.
Here’s a quick reference for the sequence of events:
Entering emotional state of the point-of-view character
Character objective: What do they want?
Conflict: What impedes them from what they want?
Motive for antagonism: Some understanding of the other characters’ motivations
Character’s worldview: What belief system is he/she operating in?
Tactic: What actions the character takes in the scene to achieve their objective (remember, dialogue is action)
Turn: Does the character get what they want in the scene? What comes out of the conflict? What causes their emotions to change?
Objective achieved: Yes or no?
Exiting emotional state: If not the opposite of the entering emotional state, it must at least be different
What Is Chapter Structure?
How you structure your chapter is crucial to your story’s pacing and how you maintain reader interest. Once you’ve decided how many chapters make up your story and how long they are, you’ll want to structure the chapters to keep the story moving.
Think of a chapter as a mini-story within the larger scope of the novel. Remember, there are no rules for chapters, but thinking about structure will help you navigate your chapter construction and the breaks within your story.
First, list the chapter components to get an overview of what happens in the chapter.
Chapter theme or big idea
Characters involved in the chapter
What happens at the beginning of the chapter?
What happens during the middle of the chapter?
What happens at the end of the chapter?
What is the most important moment in the chapter? (the conflict)
How does the chapter tie into the overall story?
This list could help outline what you want to include when writing the chapter.
Organize the elements—conflict, character motivation, physical description of the setting, action of the whole chapter, tone, language—so the story flows through the goal, conflict, win or lose, and aftermath. These are just some things you’ll consider as you plan your chapter.
You want to consider how many scenes you’ll have in the chapter. Will the entire chapter consist of one scene? Or will you use several scenes to lead the reader through the goal, conflict, and resolution facing your character in the chapter?
Will the chapter end with a cliffhanger, foreshadowing the events in the next chapter, or simply continue the story you want the reader to follow?
How Many Chapters, Words, and Scenes Should Be in a Novel?
How Many Chapters?
Chapters are not a requirement. Some authors have no chapters, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But others may have 50 chapters or more.
Many readers use a chapter break as an opportunity to leave the book to do something else (most readers will not get through a complete novel in one sitting). When they return, they resume reading a new chapter.
The average number of chapters is about a dozen. But, genre expectations will vary.
The number of chapters in your novel is entirely up to you.
How Many Words?
A chapter doesn’t have an official length, and you may want to consider some shorter chapters mixed in with a few longer chapters.
Chapter page count can vary in length between just a couple of pages and 50 or 60. I’ve seen one-page chapters. Somewhere around the 20-page mark is about the average, which works out to about 5,000 words. Your genre may serve as a guideline for chapter length.
How Many Scenes?
The most important element of a novel is the story. The number of scenes in a novel is a great measure of the richness of your story. However, scenes are also a structural component of a novel. Working out what the right number of scenes are will have a major impact on your book.
You tell your story scene by scene. Some scenes may be several hundred words and others may be several thousand.
The more action there is, the shorter the scene should be. On the other hand, readers can lose interest if your narrative scene runs long without action and dialogue.
The Chapter’s Big Job: Pacing
As your novel progresses, your storyline will take twists and turns. A well-structured chapter break allows the reader to pause and catch their breath. Your goal for a chapter is to provide a brief pause in the action, refresh the reader’s memory about what has happened again, and then return subtly to the main storyline.
Pacing refers to how fast or slow the story is moving for the reader. You determine the length, how much information to include, and how many questions you raise for your reader.
More information slows the pace because the reader has to mentally slow down to absorb it all. Dialogue and action speed the pace as your reader rushes through the interchange between characters.
When you vary the depth of emotional conflict in each scene, you control the pacing of the story.
If every scene contains high emotional conflict, your story becomes melodrama, and the reader finds the story unbelievable. The story fails to resonate as truthful. This is true when a character overreacts emotionally to a minor incident.
Getting the pacing right can be difficult, but ProWritingAid’s Pacing Report can help by highlighting slow-paced paragraphs so you can balance introspection with action and get an overview of your pacing.
Just Start Writing
The best part about the writing process is that you can always edit later. Get your ideas down, and work out if they are in the right place later. Your number of chapters might go up or down as you edit—what’s most important is to do what’s best for your story. Happy writing!