2015/12/01

How to Divide a Book into Chapters

There's no shortage of advice for indie authors these days. If you're thinking of self-publishing a book, there are scores of professionals who stand ready to offer you tips on everything from cover design to pricing to social media advertising.

This abundance of free expertise isn't just limited to marketing questions, either. There are so many writing resources available just a few clicks away that right now is arguably the best time in history to learn how to be a writer.

I certainly benefited from the wealth of information that the internet has placed at my fingertips. But one skill of the writer's craft that a lot of sources are oddly silent on is the subject of chapters. You've got a book. According to established convention, it needs to be divided into chapters. How do you proceed?

Here I'll share the bits of advice regarding chapters that I've learned from other pros, along with what my own experience has taught me. The following mainly applies to novel-length works of fiction. If anyone out there sees where my advice differs from SOP in non-fiction, feel free to let us know in the comments.

Nethereal
You can measure my experience organizing this book into chapters with a ruler.
What chapters are for
Like every part of a book, chapters shouldn't be simply ornamental (even a book's ornamentation serves a purpose). Everything you put into a book has to pull its own weight. Here are some of the jobs that chapters do.
  • Give the book an internal structure or "skeleton" to hang the story on
  • Help to organize the writer's ideas
  • Aid in setting the story's pacing
  • Serve as guides for interweaving plots and subplots
  • Provide readers with points of reference to mark progress and remind them where to start/stop reading.
As you can see from this partial list, chapters play a vital role in the structure and pacing of a book. You would think that creative writing teachers would have more to say about them.

Personally, I think that most authors and readers take chapter organization for granted. Unlike dialogue, grammar, and even punctuation, poor chapter placement is usually misidentified as other problems; and good use of chapters is often overlooked.

Don't make the same mistake. Be intentional with your chapter divisions!

Approaches to Chapter Organization
Like every aspect of writing, there are many schools of thought when it comes to organizing stories by chapter. Some books--mostly older ones--have long chapters that can go on for dozens of pages. Contemporary writers tend to favor short segments of only a few pages between chapter breaks. At least one popular author has started writing books with no chapters at all.

While omitting chapter breaks entirely can be clever and effective in the right kind of high-tension story (it pretty much forces people to keep reading), I advise new authors against trying it their first time out.

My preferred approach to deciding where a given chapter should begin and end goes like this:
  • Stay on the shorter side. Few people these days have the time or attention span to curl up with a book. Most will be reading your novel on their phones during the train ride to work or for a few minutes at lunch. I try to keep my chapters to 5 pages; 10 pages max (though no one's perfect).
  • Each chapter should be a self-contained movement of the story. A good rule of thumb is to have each chapter contain a complete sequence of events that take place in a specific setting at a particular time. In other words, one scene per chapter.
  • As much as possible, limit your chapters to advancing one plot or subplot each. This is one rule that I break a lot, so I can't blame anyone else for doing it too. Just make sure your decision to cut between scenes within a single chapter does some greater service to the story.
  • If your book has multiple plots/subplots, it's a good idea to alternate between them every chapter. Advancing plot A in chapter 1, plot B in chapter 2, and plot C in chapter 3 before getting back to plot A in chapter 4 gives readers variety and evens out the pacing. Bonus points for ending sections of plot advancement with cliffhangers that audiences have to read 2-3 more chapters to see resolved.
  •  Start and end each chapter as close to the action as possible. This is the famous "in late, out early" rule, and there are few better cures for bad pacing. If this chapter features a shootout at a warehouse, don't bother writing the scene where the characters drive there. Similarly, skip the mundane details of the immediate aftermath; or save them for later.

Methodology
There are three basic methods for dividing books into chapters.

You can put in the chapters breaks during the process of drafting. Inserting chapters as you go saves time up front, but it can lead to headaches later if you need to rearrange material while making revisions.

Some authors write the whole draft from start to finish and then go back to put in chapter breaks. It takes a little more time, but you get the most flexibility this way. Larry Correia favors this method.

At least one author I know composes each chapter as a separate document and strings them all together at the end. This is an interesting approach that I only became aware of within the last few years. The main advantage of this method is that it makes editing really, really easy.

I mainly use the first method, but I tried option three for an earlier draft of Souldancer.

Souldancer chapters
It's easy to find the part you need to edit, but pasting them all together is quite a chore.
Making each chapter its own document appeals to my inner editor, so I'll probably try it again.

The one method I haven't tried yet is the "write it all out and then go back and portion it out" technique favored by Larry. I plan to use it on Soul Cycle Book III, so I'll let you know how it works out.

Chapter Layout
Now we come to the most straightforward part: how to format your chapters. This picture showing the start of Souldancer chapter 4 pretty well sums up what you need to know.

Souldancer Chapter 4

In a standard, double-spaced manuscript, start each chapter with the chapter number positioned two spaces down (a single hard return) from the top of the page. The first line of text begins two spaces down from the chapter heading.

You could get cute and give each chapter a title or include a quote in the heading. I just use nice, clean numbers.

Now you know everything that I know about chapters. Go forth and use this knowledge for good; never for evil.

You can see my chapter writing skills for yourself in my horror-influenced space opera Nethereal, which may also make a good Christmas present for that person on your list who has somewhat messed up sensibilities. You know who I mean.

2 comments:

  1. I tend toward chapters that are less than 3000 words, with a bare minimum of about 1800. I don't like to change them up too much, since readers tend to expect certain lengths.

    While the Wheel of Time are humongous books with terribly long chapters, I thought Brandon Sanderson's approach in the latter books was good for chapters and pacing. He would have each subplot have an arc to it, and the chapters would complete that arc, before another subplot is dealt with.

    For example the chapters might look like this: Ch 1: Subplot A Beginning, Chapter 2: Subplot A Middle, Chapter 3: Subplot A: End, Chapter 4: Subplot B Beginning, Chapter 5: Subplot B Middle, Chapter 6: Subplot B : End, Chapter 7: Sublot C: Beginning.

    And so on.

    Each of these subplots furthers the overall mainplot, but readers feel like the subplots have progressed (by completing an arc) before the chapters go to another subplot.

    One of the problems I've noticed with some books, and others have echoed this, is that changing to another character/subplot after the previous chapter ended on a cliffhanger can be quite frustrating, especially if the character/subplot that it's changed to is less compelling than the last one. One way to combat this would be to use small chapters ( < 3000 words). Still, I like the idea of having complete arcs for each character/subplot before moving onto another. I've yet to try it, though.

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  2. You make several excellent points.

    I haven't gotten around to Sanderson's WoT books yet, but having read the previous installments, I suspect he may have used that approach out of necessity.

    Sanderson explained his normal chapter-building method in a lecture from his creative writing class. (You can effectively audit the whole semester's worth of class meetings on YouTube.)

    When Sanderson writes a chapter for one of his own books, he goes to his outline and picks out at least two elements that need to be advanced.

    For example, let's say the outline specifies a character whose backstory needs more fleshing out and a subplot that needs to be introduced. Sanderson will write a chapter about these two things--preferably so that each pulls double duty by developing the other.

    About the cliffhanger trick--yeah, it can get annoying, so use at your own risk. Dan Brown relies heavily on this method. Take that as you will.

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