At some point in writing your novel, you have to start thinking about “chaptering,” the process of deciding exactly when and where your chapter breaks will go.
This is one issue for which you should not turn to the classics for help. In the days of Dickens and Tolstoy, the first few pages of each chapter served to get the reader ready for the events to come. Have you ever been to an elaborate theatrical production during which the curtain remains up through intermissions so you can see the workers shifting and turning the huge sets on their groaning sleds and rollers? That’s what I’m reminded of when I start a chapter by Melville or Hugo. Nowadays readers have less patience, and the novelistic curtain stays down during intermission as the reader leaps from chapter to chapter without being aware of all the whirring gears and pulleys we have so adroitly hidden from view. Or so we hope.
Thoughtful chaptering is more important than ever. By starting and ending in the right places, your chapter breaks alone can serve the powerful function of building suspense and keeping your readers reading. Unlike sentences or paragraphs, which have rules, chapters are artistic decisions; there are no rules. Here are three simple, essential techniques that can help you make effective chapter pauses.
1. Focus on the Writing First
In deciding where to insert their breaks, some writers make chaptering part of their initial outline, but I find this method constrictive. In my experience, the most effective chapter breaks are born by writing first and evaluating the structure second.
Try this: When you begin working on your book, structure your outline by episodes and events, not chapters. Only as you begin actually writing the novel should you give any thought to the chapter structure. When you come to a point that jumps out at you as a possible good place for a break, put in a “#” as a spacer and move along. When the draft is done, use your word processor’s Find function to go through them all, deciding which ones (usually 20 or 25) make the best chapter breaks. Most of the rest can remain as scene breaks, or be replaced with a transitional paragraph or two. This technique has worked for me going on 30 years.
Of course, there are two more specific areas in the writing process that make chapter breaks both obvious and organic …
2. Break Chapters When Your Story Requires a Shift
Changes of place, changes of time, and changes of point of view are all excellent places for chapter breaks. Sometimes, our stories necessitate them. For example:
END OF ONE CHAPTER:
He wiped the sweat from his forehead, took one last squinting look up at the flat, brassy African sky, and straightened his limp, damp jacket as well as he could. “We’re done here,” he told Howard. “Let’s get to the airport.”
BEGINNING OF NEXT CHAPTER:
Maine. Cool, misty, green. A pewter-colored sky …
A chapter break like this underscores the fact that there’s been a significant change of some kind—of place, of perspective, of point of view, of plot direction. It jogs your reader’s mind, telling him that it’s time for a reorientation, a retaking of his bearings. It can also refresh your reader’s eye after a long interval in one setting or situation. These chapter breaks lend continuity and pacing—both of which are essential for balancing suspense—to your story. And if you want even more suspense …
3. Break Chapters in the Heart of the Action
A good rule of thumb: Ask yourself, How can I end this part so that the sleepy reader is compelled to keep the light on if only to see how some crisis turns out or how some crucial question is answered?
When shooting for this can’t-put-the-book-down effect, there’s one principle that’s as close to a surefire technique as can be: the good old cliffhanger, a term that dates back to the 1930s and ’40s, when Saturday movie matinees always included a serial—as a matter of fact, as kids we called them “chapters”—in which Tarzan, or Buck Rogers, or the Green Hornet would be left literally hanging by his fingernails from the crumbling edge of a cliff. The idea, naturally, was to make sure we were back in the theater the following week, and that’s the way it works for novels, too.
Effective as it is, there are a couple of caveats: First, you don’t want to end every chapter this way, or even most of them. It becomes predictable, which is something you don’t ever want anybody to say about your novel. After a while, this tactic loses its punch. Suspension of disbelief can go just so far. Second, for the technique to be most effective, it needs to be an integral part of the overall story, not a gratuitous invention inserted just for effect.
Also, note that a cliffhanger ending to a chapter doesn’t have to be an action scene. As long as it leaves the reader “hanging,” you’re in business. For example:
END OF ONE CHAPTER:
Nan’s normally rosy face was the color of putty. “There’s something I need to tell you.” Her eyes were fixed on the floor. “Something you don’t know about me.”
BEGINNING OF NEXT CHAPTER:
It had all started, she said, tight-lipped, when her mother’s brother moved in. She’d been 12 …”
Use techniques like these to keep that novel curtain drawn tight during intermission, and you can rest assured your sleepy reader will be fighting to keep his eyes open all night, page by page, chapter by chapter, book by book.