Part of the How They Do It Series
JH: Chapters are the typical way writers break up a novel, but what's the right way to handle them? Dario Ciriello shares thoughts and tips on handling your novel's chapters.
I was recently asked by a writer how long a chapter should be, and how do you know where to end it. My first reaction was to smile and quote the old English saying, how long is a piece of string? In fiction, there really no rule, which set me thinking on what exactly a chapter is. Is it an organizing principle, or simply a device of convenience?
Chapters in fiction became common in the mid-eighteenth century. Novelist Henry Fielding, in 1742, gave a lovely description of the divisions between chapters as “an Inn or Resting-Place, where he may stop and take a Glass, or any other Refreshment, as it pleases him.” At the time, the average chapter was quite brief, perhaps 1,800 words, and typically encumbered with a mini-index listing its contents, such as, say,
CHAPTER TWELVE: Mr. Stevens woos the chambermaid, with interesting resultsOr more – much more. Some nineteenth-century chapters in particular could contain several sentences in a list divided by semicolons.
It’s tempting therefore to think of the chapter as an organizing principle, but I think that’s not quite right: to me, the scene is the organizing principle, where the narrative is divided by subject matter, time, or place, or a combination of these. If we choose to follow this mode for our chapters, they’re likely to vary enormously over the course of a long work, since some units of action or narrative – a fight, say – may take up just a few paragraphs, while others (a difficult search, or a long conversation) might go one for twenty pages.
(Here's more on The Freedom of Writing Without Chapters)
Mapping it in hierarchical terms, here’s how a novel, with the possible exception of experimental postmodern or deconstructionist works, is actually structured:
BOOK > (PART) > CHAPTER > SCENE > PARAGRAPH > SENTENCEWith a chapter being composed of scenes, the scene break is where a narrative shift in time, place, or POV occurs. The discrete narrative unit is therefore contained within the scene, and the chapter can be used (by making chapters very roughly equal in size) to give some sense of regularity in a long work and break it into bite-sized pieces that can be read in a lunch break or at bedtime. This makes it convenient to read maybe a chapter or two of a book and put it down at the end of a chapter with a sense of reaching that “Inn or Resting-Place” where you may stop and take refreshment, or a good night’s sleep. This is how I like to divide chapters, and of course they also give you the opportunity for a cliffhanger ending to leave the reader eager to resume their reading.
The Victorian chapter grew in length to about 3,500 words, or around eight paperback pages. That’s not changed much: a great many of the genre novels I read average 400 pages (including some blank or intro pages) and contain around 25-30 chapters, which, at an average 330 words per page, comes out around 4,500 words per chapter, or almost fourteen pages. Sounds about right. (My own chapters are – on average – rather shorter, often half of that, and I’d be interested to hear in the comments how other authors feel about this.)
(Here's more on Tips on Writing Scene and Chapter Transitions)
Chapters, then, allow for resting places in a long narrative. The only other question remains how to know where to end one and begin the next.
Again, I have to say there’s no hard rule. I think most of us just develop a feeling for it and intuitively know where to close a chapter rather than reasoning it out. You can break a chapter when there’s a natural shift and it coincides with a scene ending, or you can break a chapter right in the middle of action. But either way, it should feel right, giving the reader the sense something is resolved and/or drawing them deeper into your story and leaving them with a desire to read on.
How do you handle and think of your chapters?
Dario’s fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.
Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, 2017) is his second nonfiction work.
In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors.
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About The Fiction Writing Handbook
The Fiction Writing Handbook* is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.
Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.
Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers' block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.
Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.
*Originally published in 2017 under the title, "Drown the Cat"
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