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The Care and Feeding of Chapter Breaks

What do you get when a bunch of writers get together and start chatting? No, it’s not a joke. In this case, some of my friends and I recently got into an interesting discussion about chapters, and more specifically on their use in narrative, and on the various ways in which stories get broken up into chapters.

The Chapter as Structured Emotion

I’m a fairly big devotee of the chapter as a structural unit. They are a natural building block for story: narrower than “act” or “part” (or “book”) but wider than a scene or paragraph (let alone a sentence).

But I think the chapter is at its weakest if we consider it as merely a tool for carving the plot into bite-sized chunks. Yes, a chapter does that. But our engagement with a story is only marginally tied to its plot: our investment is really driven by our emotional engagement, which in turn is shaped by the confluence of plot, characters, language, sentence/paragraph structure, and – yes – chapter structure. To think of chapters as merely tools for managing plot misses on their greatest value. I think the real value of the chapter is as a tool for shaping/directing the story’s emotional arc.

We use more targeted structure in a similar fashion all the time. Consider how we construct our sentences or our paragraph breaks: what is the “punchy one-sentence paragraph” except a way to stress an emotional point? Chapters (and to a lesser extent scenes within those chapters) work on the same principle, only with more weight behind them. It is that weight and the emotional arc chapters take us through which shapes our perception of pace and our engagement with the story.

The All Important End

At the end of a chapter, we’re left feeling a certain way: “Holy shit! What’s going to happen now?” or “Whoa. I’ve got to get a breath of air” or “Aha! I know where this is going [but I need to keep going to make sure…].” The paragraphs in the chapter that lead up to that ending are all leading towards that one crystalline moment, that pause where the reader takes stock of their experience before turning the page and continuing to the next chapter.

At the end of each chapter, we retroactively re-assess our perception of that entire chapter. Our experience of the preceding paragraphs, sentences, and events gets overshadowed by our experience of the chapter’s conclusion. It is only with great difficulty that we can parse where we felt that the chapter dragged, or note where the tension rose. The note on which the chapter ends colors our memory of the chapter, and may even replace it entirely.

This is a structural trick that works in book length as well: consider the end of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Martin’s greatest success in that book was the surprising fate of Ned Stark, and that surprise and its implications force a fundamental reshaping of our experience of the entire novel. Chapter endings do the same on a smaller scale, and furthermore bridge our emotional engagement with the chapter that follows.

The Process of Chapterizing a Book

When we write, different people approach chapter breaks in different fashions. Some of us like to outline, and build chapter breaks into our outlines from day zero. Others like to write an entire novel divided solely by scene breaks, and then cut the narrative into chapters after it’s all down on paper. There is no “right” way to do it, and I think that whether we use chapters as a plot demarcation or an emotional one, the timing for when we go in and slice the story into those chapters is entirely secondary.

Different strokes for different folks. Though my own process has changed somewhat as I’ve written increasing amounts, I find that these days I think of my books as “chaptered” before I sit down to write a word. I view chapters as my milestones in my writing process, and their emotional culmination as the “goal” I’ll be writing towards. I’ll sit down and tell myself “Okay, time to write Chapter X” and then I’ll write until I’m done with that chapter. Later on, I might go in and move stuff around, re-write the chapter from scratch, change the sequence of chapters, drop whole chapters, etc., but that’s part of the “fun” of revision.

From a process standpoint, I’m ridiculously anal retentive about doing all of this. Until I’m putting a completed draft together, I keep each chapter (and for some projects with more complicated structures, each scene) in its own folder, and in that folder I’ve got different files for different versions of that scene or chapter. I’ve got my trusty Excel spreadsheet which keeps track of chapters, scenes, sequence, and versions, and I’m sure if anyone else looked at my crazy system they’d scratch their heads and say “WTF?” but hey – it works for me.

So if your process is to slice up your story into chapters after it’s all down on paper? There is nothing wrong with that. It’s a very different process from mine (my brain honestly can’t quite wrap around its implications – it is very foreign to me), but hey, if it works for your own mental process then that is awesome.

How to Decide Where Chapter Breaks Go

Regardless of when or how we break up our chapters, the key to deciding where to put chapter breaks is the emotional ride we want to take our readers on. Our plots – with all of their twists and double-crosses and cliffhangers – are one of the many devices we use to affect our readers’ emotions. In this, using plot points to signpost chapter breaks might still yield a decent result.

But for greater control of both reader emotion, and for greater flexibility with how we shape / present our plots, I think the key is to consider the feelings we wish to evoke, and to remember that the note struck at the end is the one that our readers will remember.

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