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On Writing Chapters

Anonymous asked: “How many scenes should there be in only one chapter?”

A chapter can be one scene, a collection of scenes with the same theme, or a natural breaking point for your reader to pause. There aren’t any set rules that I know of. 

Some very craft writers will make a chapter work the way a short story might, slow build, heightened conflict scene and then a clue for what might happen next (instead of resolution) – there’s no rule that that’s how things have to be. I think it’s most important for the chapter end to feel like a good spot for your reader to take a break. Don’t cut off in the middle of action, but maybe the lull before or after. 

Personally, if we’re talking examples – I love the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling names all her chapters and if you look at what goes into a chapter, there’s usually a few scenes, with the big highlight of the chapter being the thing she named the chapter after. If you’re ever looking for something in a Harry Potter book, it is so much easier to find. You can often figure out exactly what chapter it’s in just by flipping through the table of contents. That in my mind is evidence that Rowling crafts chapters particularly well. 

If your manuscript is not yet broken down into chapters, you might be surprised that there are natural breaks between scenes. While reading, mark those natural breaks. It might take some fudging and shuffling things around, or cutting and adding a bit to make your chapters all feel like they were meant to be different chapters, but you might be surprised by how it can come together. 

Some writers like their chapters to be of similar length. I personally like that idea. It’s not necessary, but it’s nice. Another general rule, longer chapters in the beginning, shorter chapters at the end. You want readers to be rushing to the end – shorter chapters will make them feel like they’re getting somewhere fast. Longer chapter in the beginning will allow for more exposition, introducing characters, and so on. 

The last thing I’ll mention is that there’s one technique that all readers just love and hate and as writers, it’s easy to forget this – right before the end of a chapter, set some kind of expectation or action for the next chapter. I like to say, end it with a knock at the door. It gives readers a want to keep reading and it means your next chapter begins with answering the proverbial door – whatever that ends up being.

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