Ciao, SEers. Today is part six: chapter construction. I was surprised to find none of us has spent a great deal of time discussing the chapter as a discrete unit of a story. We gloss of things in a few posts, but never delve into chapter construction. (There is a post on scenes that might interest you if you’re looking for more information.) Probably because it’s kind of evident what to do—write a scene or series of scenes that link together. The chapter should reveal character and/or advance the plot. That said, I’m going to talk about what the proper development of a chapter can do for your story.
We talked before about your first chapter being your standard. How you should revisit it often to make sure it draws in a reader from the first word and keeps them turning the pages. It’s hard to argue with that logic. I’m going to take it a step further, though. I posit all chapters need to start with a compelling sentence and get quickly to a hook that will keep readers interested.
To keep readers invested, each scene needs to build from the last. If you read a scene that doesn’t advance the plot or reveal character traits, it’s dead weight. Cut it. Yes, even if it’s the best writing you’ve ever done, it needs to go.
Regardless of the characters in a scene and if they live through it, you need to make the reader care about them. ALL of them. The expendable secondary character that’s about to get shot doesn’t know he’s not the star of the story. He should be crafted as though he is, avoiding stereotypes and flat, nondescript personalities. Readers need to care when he’s killed, and you can’t get reader investment without making all the characters seem real. No one can be a placeholder or merely a device.
Your final chapter is as crucial as your opening. The ending has to do several things for you. It must pay off planted seeds, and it has to do so in such a way that there are no surprises that weren’t set up first, but you don’t want the reader to notice those clues until they see the reveal. Give them just enough that looking back, they see it, but while they were reading it, they missed it. Never mislead the reader so you can have a surprise ending.
Ambiguity is okay if the story permits it. (We’ve discussed this before and used Inception as an example.) All the big questions should be answered before leaving the reader with that final point to ponder.
Your endings must manage genre expectations. Romances are defined by “happily ever after” endings. Horror almost always has one lone survivor followed by a jump scare. You’ve done a good job if you meet those expectations but find a way to be fresh. One way to do that is to think of alternate endings, then pick the most outlandish, yet believable, one. If you’re a plotter, you’ve been working toward a specific ending. Now is the time to reevaluate it. Be willing to change it if you see a better one. The ending should be honest, poignant, true to the characters, and leave the reader satisfied. Again, that doesn’t mean you can’t have an ambiguous ending. Some of the best stories don’t answer that final question. The satisfaction is gained by giving the reader something to ponder after the mystery boxes are closed.
Now, a few points about the mechanics of chapters. Long chapters set a tone and are great for establishing mood and defining character. Short chapters create momentum and advance the plot. I once discussed scenes and sequels, action and reaction. You shouldn’t have too much action before getting a reaction. Balance creates a comfortable flow. Mix up these elements to give the reader a chance to catch his breath. Finally, consider where the chapter is in the main document. Why did you put it there? Does it drive the plot forward, convey information, and/or deepen character? If not, it’s in the wrong place and should be moved (if not cut).
- Write a compelling first sentence.
- Have a hook early to keep the reader invested.
- Advance plot and/or develop character in each chapter/scene, or it needs to be moved or cut.
- Write your characters so readers bond with them. That’s what will make them care about every scenario.
- Endings are as important as beginnings. The most successful ones:
- answer big questions.
- are surprising but don’t come out of nowhere.
- stay true to the genre but still feel fresh.
- satisfy the reader, even if they are ambiguous.
- Mix up length and purpose for flow and balance.
- Fit logically in the progression of the story (or be moved or deleted).
- Drive the plot forward, convey information, and/or deepen character.
Next time, we’ll discuss pacing, tension, and suspense. Until then, I’d love to know more about your chapter construction strategies. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!
Links to the Whole Series:
January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series
Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.