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.

Writing in Chronological Order

The question has come up, “Is it best to write in chronological order or out of sequence?” To be honest, there is no absolute answer to this. For some people, it is best suited to write things in whichever order they want and skip around to different scenes as they see fit. It works for them, and that’s fine. Then there are others who literally go from beginning to end without skipping ahead. I am part of the latter sect, so I can’t vouch for the former. However, I have observed skipping ahead works for certain individuals, so I won’t disregard it completely. I simply can’t go into detail of how it works.

Now, going from beginning to end is simple because it reflects how life is lived. We can’t skip to our favorite parts in life. It is in those little moments, those moments when you don’t even think has any action or any thrill of any kind, that can actually be the most profound and developmental for us in life. Likewise in stories.

You may have a boring part, and then a fun part, and then three boring sections in a row before hitting an awesome section, and you may really, really, really rather not want to write those boring parts. After all, you’ve had a rough day. You want to write something thrilling and exciting just to release all the stress and tension of the day. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if you write all the exciting and fun scenes first, what will you be left with in the end? Boring scenes—absolutely nothing thrilling to look forward to, but you know you need to write those scenes because they’re important. In that case, you have to knuckle down and write boring scene after boring scene after boring scene without much light at the end of the tunnel except for the relief that soon you’ll be done with the book.

That doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it? Now, of course, those people who do skip around when writing have different methods and ways to do it that they may be able to combat this, but when people come to me and say they’re bored with their story, and then I discover they’ve skipped around, it’s very obvious that the reason why they’re bored is because they wrote all the fun scenes first.

So, how do you combat getting bored when writing boring scenes? How do you fight the temptation to skip ahead to the fun scenes? View each scene or chapter as a row of rocks and cookies. You may have a rock first and then a cookie after that and then two rock and after that three cookies, and so on and so forth. The rocks are the boring scenes that you just really want to throw because they can be so frustrating while the cookies are the deliciously fun scenes. So you come to a rock, and you have to work hard to cut that rock to reveal the diamond beneath. When you get done, you’ve accomplished something great and now have a gem where once that rock was, and then you look at the next scene and see it’s a cookie, so you gabble it up easily, and it’s sweeter now than it would have been if you didn’t work on that rock. If you eat all the cookies at once, you’re going to get sick, and you won’t feel like getting up and doing any work. To you then, the rocks will only be rocks in your eyes rather than you seeing the gems beneath the surface.

In other words, treat each fun scene as your personal reward for pressing through that difficult scene. It’ll fuel you enough to get through the next hard scene, but you know beyond that scene you have another reward awaiting you.

Now, if you’re the kind of person who must go back and edit what you just wrote and do this repeatedly, it may be hard for you to progress forward. See, when you write something and then immediately edit it, what you’re doing is one step forward and five mini-steps back, and then one step forward, and again five mini-steps back. You will be progressing albeit slowly, so the temptation to skip ahead to something more enjoyable will be great, so this is something to keep in mind. Also, remember, when you’re writing the first draft, it is a first draft—doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be completed. You can always (and you will) go back to revise and edit once you’re finished.

So, should you write in chronological order or out of sequence? It’s totally up to you. If you write out of sequence but find you have a hard time completing a story, then try being patient and writing it in chronological order. Does that mean you have to outline the story? No—not necessarily. You may if you wish, but you don’t have to. You may have an idea of future scenes but you’re not quite sure how they’re connected, and that’s okay. Finish writing a scene, pause as though you’re a top of a hill and look out. You can see the future scene out there somewhere, but look down at your feet—what is the very next step you need to take? What is the next scene that is important that you need to write? Write that scene. Then write the next step, and then the next, and then you’ll see that awesome future scene finally drawing near, and you get excited because things are coming together! Then you finally get to write it, and it is epic! But then you find yourself atop another hill looking out again, trying to locate the next future scene you can see. Once you’ve located that, you then look at your feet to determine the very next step you need to take to get to that scene, and go from there.

Does this work all the time? In my personal experience, it has, but that doesn’t mean the story won’t change on me, and that’s part of the fun of writing. You just have to improvise. However, not everyone writes like this, but if you are struggling, this is a method you should consider. I hope it works for you.