Today we’re getting back to basics. You’re familiar with chapters as a concept, but not many beginning writers (and far too few advanced writers) have ever really taken a dive into what chapters are about, what they’re for, and how to best execute this important aspect of the writing craft.
No matter where you are in that description, here’s the most important things to keep in mind.
Do Know The Conventions of Your Genre
Chapters in epic fantasy novels and works of historical fiction can be very long indeed, while a chapter in a book for third graders might be under 100 words. Although the conventions of the genre you write in aren’t hard-and-fast rules, readers expect them. When you do something readers don’t expect, you ask them to work harder to read your book. Since most people don’t like to work hard, you should meet those basic expectations unless you have a very strong reason not to.
Generally speaking, aim for short chapters (1000 – 1500 words) for thrillers, romance, mystery, and detective novels. Literary fiction and mainstream fiction skew longer into the 2000 – 4000 range. For fantasy, look at 3000 – 5000 words per chapter. Science fiction is all over the place, ranging from 1000 word chapters all the way up to 6000 or more.
For nonfiction work, the length of the chapters matters less than consistency. Aim to have most chapters in your nonfiction work be approximately the same length.
One trick that works here is to grab the five books most like the one you’re writing, and count the average chapter length between them. That should give you a strong guideline to aim for yourself.
Don’t Make A Chapter About One Thing
Chapters should be separated by some break in the action. You might change point of view or location, or there’s a significant change that requires a stop in the manuscript’s flow. That means each chapter is about one specific set of occurrences in your story, but it doesn’t mean the chapter should be just about that.
As you plan each chapter (or as you rewrite), set two to three goals for each. One goal should be moving the plot from the state of things at the chapter’s beginning to what you need it to be at the end. Your other goals should be things like developing the world, establishing traits in a character, expounding on the book’s theme, or explicitly raising the stakes.
In nonfiction, the chapter’s primary goal is to convey a certain aspect of the information you’re communicating. Often, the secondary goal is establishing you as an expert, but it might be to also teach key subject vocabulary, or to convince readers of your opinion on the topic.
Do Outline Your Chapters
You should do this no matter how much outlining you like to do, and you should do it the same way you outlined your book. If you go deep on outlining, with a full set of multi-tiered lines for the book, make a similar set of lines for the action in the chapter. If you’re more fluid and general, make chapter notes that are fluid and general.
The point is, use the same process to prepare to write each chapter that you did to prepare to write the book in general. It keeps you focused and on point, and helps a lot in making sure each chapter accomplishes its multiple goals.
Don’t Title Your Chapters (Most of the Time)
This is true for fiction. Well, for most fiction. Thing is, titling chapters is a skill unto itself, one more akin to writing ad copy than to writing a good chapter in a novel. Don’t spend time learning this skill at the expense of others unless you really have to.
That said, some fiction genres expect named chapters. This is especially true of children’s books, but also fairly common in young adult, middle grade, and fantasy. Like with chapter length, look at your comparable titles and see what they do, then do likewise.
The bad news about nonfiction is that people will expect chapter titles more often than not. The good news is you don’t have to work so hard on them. Simply title them descriptively, like you might with an industry journal article about the topic.
Do Use Chapters as a Pacing Mechanism
Pacing is the most important tool of chapters in a book. They create pauses in the flow of the story, the same way periods create pauses in the flow of a paragraph and intentional silence creates pauses in the flow of oratory.
Each chapter should have its own pace. One might be tense and rapid, with lots going on and immediate stakes hanging over the protagonist’s (and reader’s) head. Others will slow the story down, offering the reader a bit of breathing room. There are two things to keep in mind about this dichotomy.
First, it’s a mistake to try making a chapter do both of those things. The chapter should be either one or the other, or a single unit of a consistent feeling between those two extremes. When you feel tempted to change the pace of the chapter, usually that means you should start a new chapter.
Second, be strategic about when the paces change. Arrange fast chapters and slow chapters in an alternating, and ever-increasing, pace to maximize the buildup and climax of your fiction.
For nonfiction, your pacing should aim to keep reader interest and satisfaction with what they’re learning. It’s a good idea to flow from teasing information, to presenting information, to reviewing information, either through each chapter or in a series of chapters.
Don’t Let Your Chapters Stand Alone
As you move from one chapter to the next, have some kind of emotional, character-related, or plot-driven thread that pulls readers along. Chapter ends are natural stopping points, and though readers do have to go to bed sometime, there’s always the chance that they won’t start up again.
Cliffhangers are the easiest and cheapest way of making this happen, but they’re not the only option. Ending at a natural pause can also pull the reader along if you’ve made the action interesting enough. For nonfiction, it can help to either tease what’s coming in the next chapter, or establish why the information from the chapter they just read flows well into the chapter that comes next.
Do Start and End Strong
In theory, ideally, every chapter of every book should be compelling and brilliant, and every paragraph of every chapter should be likewise.
In reality, every book has stronger and weaker points. Even if the writing of each line is equally brilliant, every story naturally has sections that are more compelling and memorable than others. You already know that your book has to start strong to hook readers, and end strong so they feel like the investment of time and emotional energy was worth it.
The same is true of chapters. It should start strong and end stronger, to capture interest and to encourage turning the next page. Everything you’ve read here and elsewhere about how to start and finish strong with the whole book applies here as well.
Most Importantly, Don’t Worry About it Too Much
The thing about chapters is that they’re like the floorboards of your house: important, but largely invisible and pretty hard to screw up. If you’re writing a great book, really focusing on the chapters won’t make it a whole lot better. Just write what feels good, and use chapter fine-tuning as a way to improve anywhere you feel is starting to sag.