If you’ve ever read a book you’ll know that a novel is a series of scenes strung together to make the whole. These scenes are often grouped together to make chapters. So how does a writer know how many scenes to include in any given chapter? How long should a chapter be? What should be in it? Maybe you just go by your gut. The chapter should end here. Or here. Or maybe here. But is it long enough? Maybe you should add some more. Or maybe it’s too long? Or????
I had an epiphany a while ago on how to write a chapter. I’m not saying it’s an original idea, just that it was the first time I’d thought about it. It came while reading The Art & Craft of the Short Story by Rick DeMarinis, while simultaneously reading The Atonement by Ian McEwan.
Here’s the epiphany: Chapters are short stories.
A short story is a fictional telling that runs between 500 and 2500 words (chapters can be more or less). It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning, as Rick DeMarinis teaches, drops the reader into a situation that has a history. A chapter has a history (unless it’s the first). The history lies in all the chapters previous, and also in things the writer knows about the backstory of the character and situation. And according to DeMarinis, the ending has to illuminate all that has gone on before.
I couldn’t really encapsulate what he had to say about the middle, but I’ll say that the middle is comprised of well-crafted tension, conflict, knowledge gaps, and detail that propels the reader to the ending.
As mentioned, I happened to be reading The Atonement at the same time, and it occurred to me that McEwan’s chapters are exceptionally well written short stories. When strung together they made a bestselling novel.
Like any good short story, a new chapter must have a creative, intriguing opening line. The middle must be rich with detail and build tension. It can’t have a limp ending. In fact your chapters must have dynamic endings that have your readers quickly turning the page to begin the next one.
Consider your novel as a series of bell curves.
Many writers begin like this. A slow start, peak in tension, then slow to an end.
If you want to write a page turner you need to reverse this thinking. The peak of the bell curve is where the chapter/short story ends. The next chapter/short story opens at that point of tension.
You can scale this thinking down for each scene that fills the chapter as well, always raising the stakes, creating conflict, raising story questions/knowledge gaps, rich in detail, etc.
It takes a while to grab hold of this rhythm, but once you do, you’ll be happy you did.