The Essentials of a Chapter

A lot of writers ask, “Should I keep this chapter or not?” and “How long should chapters be?” However, before I address those questions, let’s identify what exactly chapters are, and this will help us answer those questions.

Before we get started, you should know the difference between a ‘scene’ and a ‘chapter’:

Scene: is contained within a chapter. You cannot have multiple chapters in a single scene.

Chapter: may contain one or more scenes

Scene: separated by white spaces or paragraph breaks

Chapter: separated by titles such as ‘Chapter 1’, ‘Chapter One’, etc.

These differences may not seem like much, but I don’t want you to be confused by the terminology. Scenes aren’t usually an issue, but they are part of a chapter, so I mentioned them. Our primary focus is on chapters, so let’s discuss some questions that accompany that.

How long should a chapter be? This is a common question, but, as it always is with writing, there is no written rule for the length of chapters. It is recommended for chapters to be more than a few paragraphs long—at the very least a page long or 1,000 words long. As for now long it should be, chapters can sometimes go up to 6,000-8,000 words long. However, the longer you make the chapter, the more you run the risk of losing your readers.

How do you know when you should end the chapter? This is when knowing the point of the chapter is important. Each chapter moves the story along. If you could remove the chapter (or even the scene) from the story, and this does not affect the story at all, that chapter is unnecessary. If the chapter has already accomplished its purpose yet you keep writing more and more and more, you may want to consider looking for a natural breaking point in order to end the chapter and begin a new one. Otherwise it can be longwinded and a huge distraction from the rest of the story. So, as you’re writing a chapter and if you see it’s becoming lengthy, ask yourself what is the purpose of the chapter, and have you already accomplished it? If the chapter hasn’t done what you intended for it to do, step back and determine what’s getting in the way (it could be that the story wants to go a direction different than you planned). If you find a lot of meaningless though fun conversation between characters, consider cutting back on that and getting to the point. Or it could simply be that’s how the chapter is supposed to play out.

One last thing I will say on the topic of chapters is this: if the main purpose of the chapter is character development, this is a weak purpose. I once attended a workshop taught by a screenwriting agent, and he said if a scene in a script was only about character development, they would cut that scene altogether. This applies to stories as well. Characters are developed through conflict and whatever it is they encounter. Merely introducing two characters and having them sit down and chat for the sake of backstory isn’t the reason for a chapter. Yes, that backstory may be important, but you can hold off on revealing vital information until it is absolutely necessary.

One way to do this is to get your characters into a situation where they naturally ask the questions the readers are asking. For instance, let’s say you have a character, Eleanor, who’s adopted, and she suspects it’s her adopted brother who’s behind the recent attacks in town although she has no way to prove this yet, and she knows she can’t say anything because people in the town are very loyal to him. If she’s right, and if he gets winds of it, she might be his next target. So you, as the writer, knows this, but the readers don’t know this yet, and neither do the other characters. But you introduce a new character, Hector, a detective who’s investigating the attacks. Eleanor has been tagging along with his investigations, claiming to be a reporter (maybe she actually is), and she ends up being helpful, so Hector ignores her but lets her in on the case. Then one evening, they’re sitting at a bar, sharing drinks. Not much is happening, so they’re just talking. Someone who wants mere character development as the plot for the chapter might have Hector ask Eleanor about her background and her family, and Eleanor would just spill all the info. However, Hector doesn’t know that he should be curious about her family. He doesn’t know that’s where he should dig. He’d likely just ask what her job is, might ask about her family, but Eleanor would likely skirt the issue. This makes things intriguing. If the readers know about Eleanor’s suspicion of her adoptive brother, they would be yelling at Hector to ask about her brother, and they’d get frustrated when he moves on with the conversation to another topic, but you have to understand, he doesn’t know. You have to keep the conversation natural for him. If the readers don’t know about her suspicions, they’d likely suspect something as well but wouldn’t know where to dig either, so they’d go along with it.

As you can see, this conversation cannot be the main point of the chapter. Yes, it’s good information, but it can be very shallow. There needs to be something that happens that pushes the story forward. It could be that in that moment Eleanor’s adoptive brother, Ryan, walks into the bar, and the entire atmosphere changes. He could approach them, tease her like brothers do, but then he could say something that’s a veiled threat. Eleanor would get the message immediately, but Hector wouldn’t completely understand though he’s wary of something. As soon as Ryan leaves, Eleanor could make an excuse saying she forgot she had to be somewhere, and before Hector can stop her, she’s out the door. A moment later Hector just can’t shake a bad feeling, so he follows after her, and who knows what happens after that?

You see how that one moment pushed the story forward because without Ryan stepping in and prompting that response from her, the story wouldn’t have moved forward. This is what I mean when I say that you need to make sure each of your chapters have a purpose to them.

Advertisements

A Method of Revision

Last Saturday I hosted a Facebook event discussing approaches to revision, editing, and proofreading. If you were unable to attend, I will dedicate the next few posts to discuss those three different topics. Before you send your work to any editor, agent, or publisher, it is important to go through the steps of revision, editing, and proofreading. “But that’s what editors are for!” Yes and no. Editors edit to the standard of the market, but if you do everything in your ability to make their work easier, they will love you. Besides, it is the responsibility of a writer to improve their own work and not depend on others until absolutely necessary.

First up is revision.

When I decided to attend university, I did so with one reason in mind: learn how to revise and properly edit. Several of my classes were workshops where I had to evaluate others’ work and have my own work assessed. Although the class itself didn’t teach a method on critiquing, I learned my style of critiquing. By learning how to assist others, I discovered how to see the faults in my own writing and to address them.

With revision, it’s about gut feeling. First thing you need to do is reread what you wrote. Don’t try to fix anything during the initial reread. However, if something doesn’t feel right, highlight it, and make a note of what you think your initial gut feeling on the matter. I’m currently rereading the fourth book in my historical fiction series, and notes look something like this:

…In the council hall Baldwin conversed (NOTE: suddenly Baldwin is in the council hall when he was just on the wall?) with his war council over the finer points of the plan when a trumpet sounded.

It’s as simple fix that requires adding a few lines to clarify the transition of the scene without making Baldwin appear to be a teleporter in the medieval times, but I’m not focusing on fixing the problem right now. I am trying to get an overarching view of the story.

When rereading, ask yourself questions. When you come across a part that makes you think, “Wait—what?” Then record your puzzlement. Example taken from my book:

Even Countess Agnes (NOTE: was Agnes here all this time? Insert her presence earlier) gave her son a strange look along with all the other war council members, and she wasn’t in the discussion.

Now, when you reread everything and took notes, open a new document. Title it something so you can differentiate between the two drafts. Since I tend to write book series, each series gets it own folder, and within the folder, each book gets its own folder, so I title my drafts something like, 3Draft4thBook. That way when I go to that book’s folder, I can just look at the number of documents I have saved there and the numbers and immediately tell how many drafts I have and pick the latest one instead of hunting down the most current one in a file containing 25 different drafts of the same book.

Once you have the new document open and ready to go, select from the beginning all the way down to your first note. Copy that then paste it into the new doc. Then tackle the problem that you had noted. Doing it in chucks like this helps you not feel so overwhelmed when your story is 100-600 pages long, and you also don’t have to worry about messing up or losing any sentences you liked because you always have the original document elsewhere.

What happens if the note I made tells me I need to insert a scene earlier on?” Skim through your draft and determine where would be the best place to insert such a scene if you haven’t determined it already. This can be difficult especially if your scenes are tightly knit together, but it’s worth loosening a few knots to make the story better. However, instead of trying to untangle that mess and make it work immediately, open yet another document. Here, just write that scene out unrestricted as you imagine it. Once it’s written, take it back to where it should go in the novel and smooth out the transitions If the new scene isn’t working but is causing even more problems, consider removing it. This is when revising feels a lot like being a surgeon—opening parts up to arrange, insert, or remove different parts.

During revising, organization is key. If your story is over a hundred pages, you are dealing with a leviathan, so you need to keep track of what you’re doing and take a methodical approach. Otherwise, you can get overwhelmed, and you don’t know if you’re making any progress at all because it feels like nothing has changed. It’s better to take smaller steps and make definite progress rather than take everything in running strides while making little or no absolute progress.

Is revision the time I should work on improving the quality of my writing?” No—actually, it’s not. Okay, yes you can, but that is what the Playground Experience is for. If you aren’t confident in your own writing ability by the time you have a story you want to publish, then you should go back and study it closely and ask yourself, “Why am I not happy with it?” You might be naturally insecure and require a lot of outside approval on your work before you’re confident in your writing ability, but it does need to come from within. You need to have written the best you could at that time as I said in my previous post, and you need to know that you did your best instead of just skimming over the description, dodging the dialogue, brushing over the character development, and not really diving into the heart and soul of the plot of the story. If you know you gave it your all, and you know you didn’t try to take the easy way out, then be confident. Your writing (and mine!) will always need improvement. The writing style of every single writer in the world must continue to improve, morph, and develop. Otherwise, it becomes old, dull, and boring, and you always want life in your writing, and the only way to live is to continue exploring and learning.

So should you focus on the quality of your writing during revision? If you’re unhappy with a scene and think you can write it better, then rewrite it. If you’re uncertain about a scene and think you can write it better, then rewrite it. If you’re uncertain about a scene but don’t know if you can write it better, try rewriting it but don’t lose the original version of the scene. All these rewrites should be in an altogether different document than the actual draft.

One final note because this links with editing, which we will discuss in more detail next week. As you’re revising, determine if each chapter is important. Does each scene or chapter advance the plot? What is the reason for each one? If you were to take out one chapter, would the story be crippled and limp along, or would it run smoothly even in the absence of that chapter? Every chapter and every scene must serve a distinct purpose for the story and not merely ‘character development’. This is why developing character throughout the story is better than devoting a single chapter just for character development. It’s like this, if Hancock hadn’t asked Katerina to look into the situation about Armistead, Katerina wouldn’t have gone to Zizka. If she didn’t go to Zizka, Zizka wouldn’t have told Draven to fix the situation, and if Draven didn’t send people to fix it, the reader wouldn’t have found out what was really happening, and so on and so forth. Every scene builds upon the last, and the story is constantly moving forward. If you have this, the story structure will be very tight and concise, and that is what you want.

So with revision, always reread your work first, take notes, then tackle it one section at a time. You may have to remove parts of the story, insert new parts, or arrange parts altogether. Be patient with yourself, and make sure each chapter and each scene moves the story forward.

Now, there are different ways to approach revision, but this is one way. Perhaps you will find it helpful. Next week we’ll discuss editing.