A chapter break, with its span of blank page, is the perfect place for a reader to stick a bookmark so he can take a break to watch TV, cook dinner, or fall asleep.
Hmm. Do we writers really want to be releasing our readers so easily?
Not a whole lot is written about how to divide a novel into chapters. It’s not hard science. The practice hasn’t always existed—in ancient times, the length of a book segment was limited to the length of the scroll it was written on. In Victorian England, books were subdivided so periodicals could publish them in serial form.
With no clear guidelines, what’s a modern novelist to do? If you tend to make random chaptering decisions—every ten pages, say, or at a natural quiet point in the narrative, or even worse, waiting to finish your entire book before tending to this uncertain task—your chaptering could probably be doing more to seduce and retain your reader.
Chapter breaks remind you to think episodically
Readers who consume novels a chapter at a time are busy. If you hope to invest them in your story, a chapter should include at least one full scene.
If you think about it, a scene holds the DNA of your entire story trajectory. A point-of-view character, well-motivated by his past, negotiates obstacles in pursuit of an immediate goal, that will impact his ability to achieve the overall story goal that will carry him into his desired future. The plot pressures brought to bear on the character will force him to undergo difficult inner change in some incremental yet needed way. Since these inner turning points serve to invest the reader in the POV character’s arc, you’ll want to keep the reader on hand for that full scene so he has a chance to assess the chapter’s forward movement.
When writers try to break a chapter in the middle of a scene, it feels like a cheap shot—as if the writer is saying, if you want the goods, you’re going to have to read the next chapter. This is withholding story, not delivering it. Why not go ahead and give the reader the goods, so he wants to read the next chapter? Let readers see if the point-of-view character’s scene goal is met, thwarted, or delayed—and let them in on the emotional significance of this result—before raising a question about some new influence in the next chapter.
Chapter breaks remind you to continually woo your reader
If a chapter break signals a good place to set a book down, how can writers best discourage this behavior?
In last month’s post, I mentioned the key: focusing on seducing your reader with each chapter opening and retaining him at chapter’s end. Many thanks to Cindy Vagas Hospador for her Facebook comment, asking me to expand on this concept.
If like every other writer in the world you have worried over your novel’s opening, you already aspire to the art of seduction. A worthy goal for that first sentence is to orient the reader to the scene by giving out a little information, while at the same time, raising a question that will tip the reader into the story. It could be as, “For the third time that week Judy took the cross-town bus with two shopping bags of bananas propped on the seat beside her.” This orients us to a character, Judy, in a setting, a city bus—but why is this the third time this week she’s needed so many bananas? For the right reader, this will be just interesting enough to invite her to read the next line. If this scene were to come later in the book, the line could just as easily draw the reader into Chapter 8.
At chapter’s end, you can make it much harder for the reader to place a bookmark by raising a new question about the scene to come. At the end of Chapter 7 in Judy’s story, that might go, “If she had any hope to earn Jack’s respect and get the promotion, she had to figure out where to buy that many bananas, in Quebec, in the dead of winter.” If the stakes were high—the imminent starvation of the zoo’s beloved, aging gorilla, say—the reader will want to know if that works out.
The savvy writer will end a chapter in one of two places:
- right before a dramatic turning point, when the reader’s senses are heightened and he is dying to know what happens next (such as, “After all these years, Peter and I stood on the same ancient stones, in the piazza where we’d first met met. My knees trembled as I reached for his hand—and the ground gave way beneath us.”)
- right after a dramatic turning point, when a new question has been raised (such as, “Even though I never had a chance to see his body or say goodbye, the memorial healed me. I laid out the dreams Jimmy and I had shared, admired them one last time, and buried them. I would move on with my life, because that’s what Jimmy would have wanted. But that was before I got home and picked up the mail. In the pile was a hand-addressed letter, no return address. I knew that writing like my own: it was Jimmy’s.”)
Let’s look at some examples from Kristin Hannah’s #1 New York Times bestseller, The Nightingale, a story of how two very different sisters rise to different forms of heroism while France faces the Nazi threat in World War II. Readers often say this book just wouldn’t let them go—and with an amazing 54,371 reviews on Amazon resulting in a rating of 4.8 stars, it is a novel worthy of study.
One place Hannah will not release her readers is at chapter’s end. The end of Chapter 2 is paired, after the asterisk, with the beginning of Chapter 3:
“I am to report for duty on Tuesday.”
“But…but…you’re a postman.”
He held her gaze and suddenly she couldn’t breathe. “I am a soldier now, it seems.”
* * *
Vianne knew something of war.
The end of Chapter 4/beginning of Chapter 5:
“Go to bed, Isabelle.”
“How can I possibly sleep at a time like this?”
He sighed. “You will learn that a lot of things are possible.”
* * *
They had been lied to by their government.
The end of Chapter 8/beginning of Chapter 9:
“You will take Sophie’s room upstairs and she will move in with me. And remember this, Isabelle, he could shoot us. Shoot us, and no one would care. You will not provoke this soldier in my home.”
She saw the words hit home. Isabelle stiffened. “I will try to hold my tongue.”
“Do more than try.”
* * *
Vianne closed the bedroom door and leaned against it, trying to calm her nerves.
In each of these examples, Hannah introduces a threat at chapter’s end that raises a question about what will happen next—what I refer to as reader retention, because with a new concern in mind, it is harder for the reader to set the book down at the chapter break. She then intrigues you to read the following chapter with an opening line that is every bit as seductive as the first line of the entire novel:
If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.
Middle-grade novelist Brian Jacques, who wrote of woodland creatures in his Redwall series, is also worth studying for his mad skills in handling scene and chapter breaks. Take it from me—I’d peek inside my son’s book while he was at elementary school, telling myself I’d read one chapter while I ate lunch, only to hear the bus dropping off my kids three hours later—these books are un-put-downable.
Throughout the series, Jacques tightly interweaves conflicts between the peace-loving mice who at Redwall Abbey and some outside menace. Pushed into taking up arms to defend their fortress, some of the mice stay behind, while others of their number venture out into the violent wood on a quest critical to the outcome at home. At the end of each chapter, Jacques dangles readers off one cliff only to woo them with the alternate set of characters in the opening of the next.
Here’s an interesting pairing from Chapters 9 and 10 of the third book in the series, Mattimeo:
The toasts flew fast and thick. Laughter, song, good food, sufficient drink and friendly company were making it a feast to remember.
Then Slagar the Cruel knocked upon the door of Redwall Abbey.
* * *
Slagar turned to the group at the cart. They had been watching him banging fruitlessly upon the main gate.
“They’ll never hear you, Chief,” Wartclaw ventured. “We’ll have to think of some other way to distract them.”
Note how Jacques extended the drama. We expect Slagar the Cruel to burst thought the Abbey doors and attack; instead, his knocking is rendered useless, raising a new question of how he and his group will get the mice to open the gate.
If you have been paying little attention to chaptering, try some of these techniques to extend story tension across the chapter break. All readers must sleep, but that doesn’t mean we want it to be easy for them to leave the story. And if at long last they simply must insert a bookmark, the question you’ve raised will make them eager to return.
A chapter need not end on a literal cliffhanger in order to beg continued reader interest. Have you ever thought about sustaining psychological tension over a chapter break? Inspire us with chapter end/beginning pairings from your own work, or books you’ve read.
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