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: [Read more…]