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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » How do you know when a chapter begins and ends?

Author Topic: How do you know when a chapter begins and ends?
Member # 2807

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Is there a clear way to decide when a chapter should end and the next one begin? Sometimes I'm not sure if I should call it a new chapter, or just do a couple of extra spaces or a horizontal line between scenes. How do you determine this?
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Member # 9398

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I'd say the first thing I look at is pacing. For example, when you're writing combat IMO you should use shorter sentences, so it's more like BAM. bam bam. BAM! Instead of he regarded bam. The bam was disturbing. The bam left blood. Shorter so their like rounds from the clip (the story) to the chamber (reader's mind) and their on to the next.

The whole book then repeats this pattern in larger and smaller cycles. Action paragraphs should likewise be shorter than exposition paragraphs or telling paragraphs, where you want to linger make it longer.

So with chapters if we're in the middle and the reader is getting a break from stress it seems to me the chapters should be longer.

So depending on the type of chapter it should somewhat determine the length. You don't want it too long (I max around 14 pages usually for a long chapter, I haven't checked word count).

As to WHERE to break . . . Staying within my length comfort, I name my chapters so then I try to keep the story portion relevant to the name. Like "The Burning of Manhattan" was a chapter, relatively short, that was two or three scenes all having to do with the Burning of Manhattan. When the over arcing subject changes, the scene changes, then its time for a new chapter.

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Some write novels (particularly true of long ones, I find) like stacking blocks, others like roller coasters (with continual forward progression and dips and turns). The former more often tend to have chapter titles than the latter (may more often be numbered).

I've only written one novel. And I purposefully ended each chapter, save the last, at a point of tension or action. The intent was to pull the reader into the next chapter--whether they decided they need continue reading immediately or (hopefully) look forward to doing so later "to find out what happens."

In my longer stories (novelettes) with more than one major character, I've inserted breaks with a change of character and setting. I find this fairly common.

Thus I surmise where one breaks the story is dependent on:
1) the type of story and pace desired.
2) the number of major characters and settings

Dr. Bob

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Member # 9196

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To answer in one sentence, I'd say, end the chapter in a place where the reader is compelled to read on. You don't want to end the chapter smack in the middle of a combat scene, for example, but generally, a chapter ought to end with some sort of hook.

For example, You can end with a disaster or setback, leaving the reader wondering how the protagonist will recover/react to the disaster.

Another way is to end a chapter with a surprise or twist, leaving the reader wondering how the twist impacts the protagonists motion toward his/her goals.

The key, I think, is to leave the reader wondering what happens next in light of what happened in the chapter they just finished.

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Two features end any well-crafted dramatic unit.

One, depending on whether a passage depicts a major or minor turn, an outcome of a minor complication or a major complication ends a chapter or a scene, for example. The ending act of a novel or short story depicts a final outcome of the main dramatic complication.

A double line return white space signals a jump transition and doesn't neccesarily end with a report of an outcome, though the jump break does at least end on a discovery or reversal that sets up a jump transition.

Two, a dramatic unit should also portray a discovery and a reversal. Both, in order to be complete and to set up the action of subsequent dramatic units. Discovery and reversal are the principal features of minor and major turns, as a discovery may be or cause a reversal and a reversal may be or cause a discovery, or a turn may be both a discovery and a reversal at once.

[ December 21, 2011, 03:03 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Well, you start at the beginning. Then, when you come to the end...stop.

But seriously...I've written four and a half novel chapters and it's varied a good deal. Chapter 1 ended with a sort of "cliffhanger." Usually, it seems that each chapter has basically had 1 major, significant occurrence...most of them have been battles/conflicts. Since I'm a little intimidated by novelizing, and I've always felt plot was a weak spot for me, I've used the concept of chapters to my advantage and sort of kind of treated each chapter like a short story or at least, sort of as the esteemed Dr. Bob says, like a building block piece of the greater story, each building on the last.

So, I say just do it and let the story tell you where to start and stop.

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Member # 9183

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I thought I remembered reading that Terry Pratchett didn't want to divide his book into chapters, but his editors insisted on it.

I am not a fan of POV shifts midchapter or on chapters that end as they approach a climactic scene. Otherwise, I think the writer can do what seems natural.

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Member # 2807

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Thanks. I appreciate all the input.
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Member # 9148

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I've tried to do my chapters like I've seen in published books. Some have cliffhangers like one or two here have already commented on, while others are at the end of a scene and the MC gets a slight chance to rest or to travel somewhere.

So I do both. It kinda where I feel like I want a new chapter to start. Or feel like it should. Supposedly you aren't suppose to start a chapter with someone waking up, I say supposedly because some pro writers do that anyway. More often than starting the novel with someone waking up. That's a big No No. Even though I have read one pro who seems to like starting novels with her MC waking up in the morning.

It's something you need to decide how you want it, I think.

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Chapters are for the readers. They help readers make sense of the story and give them time to reflect on what has happened.

For single POV stories, I think the end of a chapter occurs when there is a change of focus. That change may be due to some action coming to an end, or a key piece of information having been revealed, or a change of scene or a new plot twist that skews the story into some different direction. It can be many more things, but critically the reader would feel that they can put the story down and are able to come back later and pick the story up without much effort. To do this, they should feel partially resolved about the current situation, so they don't have to remember every detail to make sense of the next chapter, but still unresolved about the entire story. For single POVs, continuing is as simple as turning the next page, so cliff-hangers are not critical.

With multiple POVs, there is an added issue of the next chapter moving to a different character, and usually a different sub-plot. This makes the lure element at the end of the chapter more critical, as you want the reader to come back to the sub-plot easily and willingly. This can work against you, however, as some sub-plots are more alluring than others, resulting in chapters getting skipped by the reader and the overall plot potentially losing coherence. Chapters with multiple POVs need to be carefully pieced together.

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Member # 5512

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I usually don't break my story into chapters but scene clusters. I will try to put three scenes in a cluster but if the scenes are very long or if I have a large dialogue on my hands, I will modify that plan accordingly. If I develop a scene and it grows, I will break that cluster apart further. The clusters that remain in the end are renamed into chapters.

That said, I tend to start every chapter with a tiny hook and end every chapter with a tiny conclusion. Learned this from George R. R. Martin.

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Robert Nowall
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Generally I worked up three or four or five or six scenes and when one chapter felt bulky, I moved on to the start of another chapter. Cliffhangers? Well, in a couple of them...

But don't go by me...it's been four-some years since I abandoned my last novel and the closest I've come to chapter division since is giving each scene in a twenty-thousand-worder its own name...

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I second what Brendan said about multiple POV chapters. I can't begin to number how many books I have skipped around in because I cared more about one character (or set of characters) and that story line than I did about other characters and their story lines. I have done this especially if there is a cliff-hanger with the characters I care about and the next chapter starts with a different set of characters (or I've just thrown the book against the wall).
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Member # 5137

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I noticed when reading one of the Harry Potter books that it took me about 15 minutes to read each chapter, give or take (it's how I'd bargain with myself to 'read just one more tonight' all the way til 2 AM more often than not.)

It gave me an awareness of chapter length particularly in kid lit, which is what I write.

So I write with an eye toward keeping the page count reasonable. Generally I aim for 1k-2k words/chapter, any more and I've definitely missed an opportunity for a chapter break in there. Kid lit moves at a rapid clip for the most part, so this word count range is probably not the same for most adult fiction, but it's worked really well for me (most chapters are probably in the 1800 word range, or a solid 7 pages, possibly more depending on formatting.)

I also follow the rule of ending each chapter on a hook, be it an open question the MC asks herself or something important about to happen. Often it's a wry observation the MC makes. It's a chance for me to deliver more on the character voice that makes my work unique. I have a lot of fun with it now that I know what I'm trying to do. [Wink]

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Member # 9148

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I would agree with changing chapters when you change POVs. I like it better that way.

I have only one novel where I have more than one POV character and I think I changed chapters or at least made sure there was an obvious change of POV.

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