Functional Chapter Composition

A novel is a difficult thing to read directly through from beginning to end. Chapter divisions form an important part of novel construction, one that governs how a reader perceives the story and instructs the reader in the best way to consume it. Effective chapter construction provides the reader with the cue he needs in order to enjoy a story. Chapters must be the right length, contain the right mix of subject matter, and control the pacing of the story. No hard and fast rule governs any one of these aspects, but there are several “best practices” that can make a chapter more or less effective.


In a novel, a chapter is a division of words arbitrarily defined by separation markings. The important word is “arbitrary” because the purpose of the chapter governs the proper length, usually defined by the mix of subject matter and the pacing of the story. A novel may place chapters at naturally occurring breaks int eh content, isolating scenes or locations while creating tension or diffusing pacing.


Content divides chapters naturally, and chapters may be thought of as a series of individual short stories that intertwine in order to form a greater whole. For the writer, this means choosing the dividing line for an individual chapter and then writing to the completion of that divider. If the divider is a particular action sequence, a chapter may start at the beginning of the action and end with the conclusion of the action. If the divider centers around a location, then all of the action that needs to occur in that location at this time should be dealt with in the chapter.


As with any short story, the beginning of the chapter introduces the important elements to the current development in the action, follow those developments as they progress, and end with the logical conclusion of those elements at this time. This allows the reader to process the scene or related set of scenes, take a break, and change mental gears before moving on to the next chapter. It reduces reader fatigue, and creates reader engagement by encouraging the reader to consider the scene he’s just finished and imagine how it is going to impact future scenes.


Chapters serve two primary purposes in regulating pacing. A chapter that immediately returns to the events of the previous chapter emphasizes the importance of those events. It should resolve lingering cliffhangers and go on to set up additional action. Lengthy action sequences and intense emotional scenes can be effectively divided into separate chapters, allowing the reader to take a mental break from the intensity and read on without “burning out”.


Chapters that change the action to a new location or set of characters inform the reader as to the pacing of the novel in one of two ways. This may take the form of a consecutive passage of time, detailing a separate series of events while unimportant details like travel, dining, or sleeping occur between scenes. The chapter division has already told the reader there was a break in time, but actual time spent reading the chapter reinforces that perception. Alternately, a chapter may occur concurrently with the previous one, allowing the writer to coordinate events in the reader’s mind without forcing him to jump between simultaneous narrations.


Finally, chapter length should be long enough that the reader feels real development has occurred in the story, but short enough to prevent reader fatigue and naturally break up the action. Often this is only a single scene, but may combine two or three related short scenes. Chapters less than 2000 words are likely too short for a novel, while more than 4000 borders on too lengthy. Too short chapters cause a reader to fell rushed, while too long chapters create fatigue.

Best Foot Forward

The importance of a novel’s opening chapter cannot be overstated. When a reader starts on the opening words of the opening paragraph of the opening chapter of a novel, one of two things is happening: 1) the reader has already committed to reading your book, or 2) the reader is trying to decide if he wants to read your book by examining how it starts. In both cases, this is the right time to put your best foot forward and show the reader what you’ve got.


If the reader has already purchased your book, he’s made a commitment to you as a writer. You have his money. He is looking for an immediate return on that investment. The reader wants to know that he has made a wise choice by purchasing your book, and he wants to know right away. The opening of the book is just the right place to reward that purchase by plunging the reader directly into the web of intrigue and drama that lies under your carefully woven plot. There will be time for subtlelty later, engage your reader in the good stuff right away. Open with a car chase. Stumble upon a dead body. Realize to your heroine’s dismay that her ideal lover loves someone else. Whatever your tactic, by the end of the first chapter your reader should be glad he’s found the rare treasure that is your novel.


If the reader is still undecided about whether to commit to your work, the opening material is even more crucial, and just because writing a novel isn’t enough of a challenge, you have even fewer words in which to capture the reader’s attention irrevocably. Most readers will read two or three chapters of a book they have purchased, even if it doesn’t sieze them from the beginning. The undecided reader barely gives the author time to complete a scene before deciding to purchase the book or laying it aside. This makes the opening scene even more crucial. Open with a car chase … that explodes! Stumble upon a dead body … that could be your identical twin! Realize that your heroine’s true love is in love with … her best friend! No matter the situation, the undecided reader should hit the of that first scene and be absolutely compelled to turn the next page before buying your novel.


Hooking the reader into your novel involves more than shocking revelation, gripping action scenes, or mysterious circumstances. Upon starting your novel, the reader wants to be assured that you know what you’re doing technically, that you can write clearly and construct a linear plot. He wants you to speak to him on his level, not talk down to him or assume he already knows the complete history of your characters. He wants to know that you as a writer have done your setting research and are familiar with the conventions of your chosen genre. The reader expects a level of professionalism and that will justify his investment of time and money in purchasing and reading your novel.


A novel contains a great deal of room in which to develop characters, elucidate upon the plot, and slowly unravel a tangled web of intrigue. You want to make sure that your reader sticks around for the long-term pay-off, and that means giving him a little taste of what’s to come right up front. Forcing a reader to wait for the good stuff while you lay down careful groundwork often leads to abandoned novels and seldom to a second purchase. This is no time to be shy; show off your best work right up front and your reader will stick around for the long haul!