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.