Writing Chapters

Determining what is and isn’t a chapter can be a challenging thing. I’ve been writing novel-length prose for a long time, and I’ve really only come across a few truths. So what is a chapter?

Answer: It depends.

It really does! I’m not just copping out of a blog post! These are my three requirements when I’m writing chapters. I don’t use page lengths or have a rigid list of must-haves.

  1. A chapter should tell a mini story. I think this is absolutely necessary to breaking up a longer work into shorter works. If your novel is a house, then the chapters would be your rooms. A room is hard to consider a room without a few walls, a floor, and a ceiling, and maybe a bit of furniture or art. Not every chapter is going to be the same length, or style, or have the same characters, but it needs to tell a small story. This small story could be in the form of a common theme or chronologically connected narrative, but if your chapter doesn’t tell a story, then chances are it’s a hodgepodge of scenes rather than a coherent chapter. Try this: Boil your chapter down into a sentence of what happens, e.g. “The MC gets into an argument, loses his glasses, and falls into a stupidly placed well.”
  2. A chapter should add to the overall narrative. The scenes contained within the chapter should move the story forward in some way. Whether that’s major character development, an important discovery, or a big battle sequence, a contribution to the main plot is necessary to lump the scenes into a chapter.  A chapter is a main division of your story, a puzzle piece, and if it could go missing without changing the outcome, then it’s not really a puzzle piece. Inconsequential clumps of scenes serve more as an intermission than a chapter.
  3. A chapter should feel complete.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a chapter is too long or too short or too rambling or too terse. Going to one extreme or another can happen with little warning, but there is a sense of wholeness about a complete chapter. When I write, I try to put a piece of most subplots and plots into the scenes, which serve as a reminder as to the story’s stakes and don’t allow a reader to let an important subplot drop off the radar. (Wow, do humans still use radar? Legit EM waves bouncing off of stuff? Ew.) In any case, this feeling is personal to the writer, and comes with time, practice, and a lot of reading.

In any case, don’t be afraid to experiment with your chapters! I’d still stick to these suggestions, but I made them, so take that with a grain of 1:1 ratio sodium chloride. Long, short, etc- the important part is that they work for you and your story.

Happy Writing!


(Happy Birthday to MSB!!)

First, Write Three Chapters

This is a method that I’ve started implementing in the past year.

Before I’ll commit to any story, I write the first three chapters. Why? Why do this before you outline, before you know how the story’s going to play? This sounds a lot like pantsing. I swear, why did you write a post on outlining if you were just gonna write a bunch of chapters without it?

OK OK OK, devil’s advo-alpin. Time to chill. Lemme ‘splain.

Writing the first three (or so) chapters helps me in a number of ways.

  1. You can get feedback from critique partners, or alpha readers. If you’re bouncing ideas off of people, it helps to have these chapters as a basis to start off. Sure, this could be done with an outline or discussion, but I find that my outlines are messy, and my discussions are messier.
  2. You find the voice for the story. In a recent horror story, I started writing it in first person. After the first 20 or so pages, I realized that third person limited would allow a reader some emotional distance as these horrific (horror-fic!) things occurred. If you’re writing with the wrong perspective, these chapters can help you figure that out earlier rather than later.
  3. You get to know the characters. Sometimes, the way you expect your characters to be can be a little different from how you end up writing them in practice. If you have to make changes to your plot due to character manifestation, catching it before the first draft is hella nice.
  4. You find out if you straight-up hate actually writing the story. It’s one thing if there’s a routine that you’re forcing yourself into, but if you hate what you’re writing that’s a great reason to move on. If you don’t enjoy writing the three chapters, I sure as hell don’t recommend continuing on that story.

If this doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. Every human is different! But always give yourself permission to write, even if it’s not perfect, or won’t make it into the final draft. Perfection is one of those myths, like the holy grail or polite martians. They’re all jerks.

Happy Drafting!