How to Write: Chapters

Anything over a short story (so over 10,000 words) ideally needs chapters. They break the story up, provide helpful stopping-points, and allow the reader to skim the front page to get a feel for where the story’s going – and pick up where they left off, if needed. It’s also a good way for the reader to get a feel for how long they’ve got left in the book – especially for anyone reading on an e-reader, who can’t just check how thick it is!

But that doesn’t make chapters all that easy! How long should they be? Where should you split things? Numbers or name?

How long?

Ideally, you want to make your chapters all roughly consistent. For example, I write novellas and make mine 3000-4000 words long. For novels, somewhere around 6000-8000 words is good: if you make one suddenly shorter it jarrs the readers, and makes them think they’ve missed something.

However…learn the rules then break ‘em. You can get some very good effects with short chapters, particularly if you’ve got something dramatic happening. imagine if you suddenly switched back to one character, only to have a dramatic murder – and then that’s it, you’ve switched away again! Frustrating, yes, but I’d keep reading to find out what happens.

You don’t need chapters?

The standard response to this is either “well, duh!” or “really?!” No, you don’t have to use chapters!

However, good idea to break it into sections, at least….and chapters are helpful and expected. They make nice chunks of text, and the titles act as signposts to tell the reader what’s happening, let them return to it from the front page if they lose their place.

On which note…

What to title chapters?

You’ve got a couple of options:

Plain: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. This doesn’t give anything away, but still lets the reader work out where they are.

Hinting: a signpost without any plot giveaways! For example, “The reunion” or “The battle”.

Reveals: “The Battle of the Five Armies”, “The Chapter In Which The Hero Finds Out He’s Not A Hero”.

It honestly depends on your style, the style of your book (eg. a murder mystery will probably want more suspense than a heroic epic) and what you think works for you.

Chapter blurb

You could also, if you wanted, put a little chapter blurb…

Chapter 14

In which the hero reveals a deadly secret, and his love interest is revealed to have a secret of his own.

This works quite well with plain chapter numbers; it doesn’t reveal your hints in the title page, but does give the reader a tantilising hint once they reach that chapter. However, this one’s down to style and whatever suits you work!

Where to put chapters?

There’s two schools of thought on where to put chapter breaks…

At natural breaks

So this is when you switch character, scene, POV…when the view moves from Frodo back to Gondor, or you have a significant period of time passing. It’s the point you’d put a paragraph in, but you’ve hit the end of a natural arc in either the character or the plot.

From the reader’s point of view, natural break chapters are helpful. Sometimes, unfortunately, I have to stop reading. I don’t necessarily want to, but I’ve reached the end of my journey, or something’s interrupted me, or I need to sleep…and so I want to find a natural point in the story to stop. Chapters provide this, and give the reader somewhere to put their bookmark.

At read-on points

Leave it on a cliffhanger. Leave it as the hero’s dangling over the edge, or someone’s just thrown something, or you’ve just had a revelation. Make the reader want to turn the page!

The aim of this is to pull the reader into the next chapter, and then make them finish it; we like getting to the end of a section, after all, but if that section makes us turn the page…and then we’ve read another chapter without realising! The cliffhanger makes a tug, makes us continue reading.

Personally, this approach drives me nuts! Sometimes I do have to stop reading, and if the author hasn’t provided those helpful stopping points, I end up finishing sooner than I maybe otherwise would have (usually by shoving a bookmark in anyplace the scene slows down or gets boring) – so the author isn’t controlling where the reader stops. But…the author is making the reader continue, pulling them along!

Essentially, you’re going to have to see what works with your style, and also what type you enjoy reading.

So, chapters…?

Yes, you probably need them –  they let the reader see how far along in the book they are, give hints to the subject, and let the reader pause…or force them to continue! And basically, the rest is up to you and what suits your style.

Green Sky & Sparks

by Kate Coe


Find yourself transported to a different world. The author really draws you in with her descriptions. I felt as though I could picture the whole landscape.
Sara Ellis

Kate Coe
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