Writing Excuses 8.27: Chapter Breakdowns

What determines our chapter breaks? How do we handle POV shifts, scene-sequel balance, and other considerations when we’re carving our stories into chapters?

Dan starts with a discussion of the POV considerations in Fragments and in Ruins (from the Partials series,) and Brandon contrasts that with some of the epic fantasy methods. We argue the respective merits and pitfalls of rapid switching and large blocks, and then we talk about how the chapters take shape during our outlines and initial drafts.

Episode Trivia: This was the first episode we recorded at the Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat, and was the first time in a year that the four of us had been together to record. So rusty!

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Outline a two-character plot arc, and then break it into chapters. Experiment with big blocks and little blocks of POV in this chapter-chopped outline, and consider how this will affect the arc.

Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan, narrated by Christian Rodska

27 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.27: Chapter Breakdowns”

  1. This was a very good episode, thank you.

    I always write chronologically and in the past I used to write exclusively in First Person with one POV throughout. Lately though, I’ve been experimenting more into Third Person Limited, switching POV’s where it feels like a natural place to ratchet up the tension and keep the plot fun and flowing. In my Space Opera story on my blog I’ve been using three main POV’s with my main character, Brenna McKenstar getting the biggest share. I will no doubt need to add a few more POV characters as the story progresses, and I am using weekly episodes the same way I would use chapter breaks if it were a novel.

  2. Really agree with what Howard was saying about the problem of eight (or whatever) chapters in a row when the reader isn’t particularly invested in that POV. Brandon is right that it can give the author a chance to pull the reader into that POV and build an investment, but I think he’s being a bit too optimistic, or maybe just glossing over the difficulty there. Even if you’re a master storyteller, that approach can really backfire. Browse any thread on Reddit where WoT crops up and you will almost always find a fair number of comments from people who loved the series up to the midpoint or so, then finished a POV section they loved, flipped ahead through the chapters to see what POV’s were coming up, sighed a little, tried to read a few more chapters and couldn’t get into it, then shelved the book and never finished the series. It is a great opportunity, but it’s pretty tough to pull off.

  3. With modern readers having ‘jumpy’ minds, I’d say shorter chapters are better for the reader. I know I’ve grown to prefer that style.

    So I’m chaptering every scene, each scene tends to change POV, Time or Place.

    My chapters are all coming in around 1000 to 2000 words.

  4. I second Baronger. Do you have to have chapters or are scene breaks enough in a shorter novel? I think an epic tale does need chapters and parts.

    I’ve written draft one with just scene breaks and adding chapters feels like I’m just doing it to fit some convention.

  5. Chella, I definitely agree that sometimes chapter breaks just seem pointless. I’ve read some thrillers where the next chapter picks up immediately where the last chapter left off, no time elapsed or anything. Why put a chapter break, or even a scene break there? (unless switching POV)

    I do think that the necessity of chapter breaks is less to do with the length of a novel, and more to do with the type of story. I guess that most of the time those two things overlap. But I think the time covered in the story dictates the need for chapter breaks. Thrillers that cover 2-3 days from the beginning of the story to the end probably don’t. Stories that last weeks, months, or years, no matter how long the actual novel is, likely fit chapter breaks better.

    Also, I think it would be disorienting to have multiple scene breaks that are hours apart, and then suddenly have a scene break that jumps a month into the future. But with chapter breaks, you can do just that.

  6. I’d like to throw the concept of a “Character Dungeon” into the mix of discussing chapter length and grouping. Basically, a Character Dungeon is a mini-story that revolves around a newly introduced character, the purpose of which is to help readers form an attachment to that character, to reveal the character’s voice, and to hint at the elements that make them interesting. To note, a proper Character Dungeon doesn’t just include the new character, but rather it makes that character central.

    As it relates to chapter length and clumping, basically: once a Character Dungeon has been initiated, the narrative should stick with that character until the dungeon is complete, be that half a chapter or ten chapters. Moving the narrative away before a character’s fully introduced undermines reader attachment to that character.

    I developed the term from studying the video game, Chrono Trigger. It’s a classic SNES era RPG: while the characters are relatively flat, it’s interesting how much fans love them. I believe that a lot of this has to do with how the game introduces each character (with a dungeon that revolves around them and their individual story). Chrono Trigger’s sequel, Chrono Cross, failed to do this, and as such has a large class of almost entirely forgettable characters.

  7. This ‘cast talked about switching POV between chapters, but not any more frequently than that. In my novel, I’ve been switching POVs between scenes, with 3-4 scenes per chapter, such that each chapter has 2-3 POVs in it. Is this too frequent shifting of POVs?

  8. I guess I’m in the minority about Elantris. I forget the names, but I liked both the priest and the princess, but the ‘dead’ guy was too disconnected from the plot for so long that I was bored with him for most of the book, and then kinda put off by the role he played in the ending. Interesting that, in Way of Kings, I _loved_ Shallan, who is similarly disconnected from the Shattered Plains plotline, but that’s largely because I enjoyed the world so much and Shallan’s viewpoints gave opportunities for a much deeper understanding of Roshar than Dalinar, Adolin and Kaladin were equipped to handle, thanks to the taboo on men reading.

    The one chapter choice that left me truly puzzled was in A Memory of Light. The book has 51 chapters, if you count the prologue and epilogue, and 909 pages – an average of 17.8 pages per chapter. Chapter 37 is 189 pages. Literally over ten times the average chapter length (and skewing the average upward by 3.4 pages singlehandedly). It makes for an incredibly long read – I think it took me 5 reading sessions to finish that one chapter…not because I don’t normally stop at chapter breaks, but because it was so absurdly long that it blew _way_ past the point at which I decide stopping at a scene break is just as good. So…given the chapter spacing of AMOL in general, why did Brandon decide that one chapter needed to be almost 200 pages long?

  9. Chapters were invented because books were expensive to print, so they wanted to see if it was worth the effort. This is why many early books, such as Dickens and L.M. Montgomery (for you Canadians) were serialized into magazines. The majority of chapters, therefore, were for practical reasons and limited to what most short stories are limited today–3,000 words. (It also resulted in some really wordy prose as people tried to cram more words for money.) If the particular novel was popular, then it would have a vanity publication. (Much like the Japanese system today).

    However, as printing became cheaper, this changed–I believe around the 1920’s? Definitely by the time of Gertrude Stein whole books were being published without serialization.

    Now Chapters are used as a psychological trick for the reader. The “end of a chapter” is a “reward” for the reader which makes them think the book is going faster, just like games are structured around “levels” and “victory music.”

    This means shorter chapters make the book feel like it’s reading faster than it is and sometimes encourages the reader to read faster as well.

    Longer chapters make the book read slower.

    Chapterless books tell you to concentrate on the scene breaks, but scene breaks aren’t as much of a reward to the reader.

    The average chapter is around 3,000-5,000 words. (With some shorter and some longer than that range). This is incidentally our (current) environment for word count limits on short stories.

    So it ranged from the practical to psychological trick. That said, the sentence is still your best bet when it comes to pacing.

  10. Hi, guys! Great podcast as always. I have a question about POVs for you: what is your opinion on changing POV style in the middle of a series? I’ve seen a lot of it lately in YA and am not sure how I feel about it. Thoughts?

  11. Well Ana I’d say it’s a bit experimental, which generally means it’s going to be awesome or sort of crash and burn. Is the story fun? That’s the most important for me.

  12. After I initially commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are
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    Thank you!

  13. Also, whats with the useless writing advice read a lot to write a lot. It makes the assumption everybody is employed, because not everybody can afford books. So what, only employed and rich people should hope to write because only they can afford every book? Even if one only read in their genre, these days thats hundreds of books. So I have to buy all these?

    But only write what you know is debunked.

  14. Ed I am equally confused at that rant.

    Being wealthy and having reading material are no related at all. I’d say they are diametrically opposed propositions.

    That’s just another person making excuses.

    You are now out of excuses. Now go write.

  15. But in order to be free, you have to live in the county.

    My point was reading a lot has no correlation to writing.

  16. Anyway on chapters, I don’t know if you call scene breaks chapters, but anyone remember Insomnia, where each scene had a normal numeral? Sometimes I find myself unintentionally picking up this habit, as I want to pace it where a certain amount of time has passed.

    The question I have is, should they only be done if a great deal of time has passed? Or just in between scenic locations? Also I mean no direct correlation, they arent how to write books. Its mimmicking the author you like.

  17. Sarah, reading a lot may not correlate with writing. But I think there is at least some correlation between reading a lot and writing well, which is what the podcast is about after all.

  18. Just wanted to say that I loved the energy in this webcast – it’s been a while since we’ve heard you all so excited about a topic. Having an audience really lifted the ‘cast and focused the presentation. I’ve been feeling like we’ve been missing a bit of the ‘this is how each of us do this thing, and this is an example of it done really well / really poorly’ and I found that especially helpful in this one. We’ve been lacking a bit of the writing help in recent posts, and this was a very welcome and focused return. Thanks guys!

  19. WE Team,

    Great cast, thank you. This is one of the first times where the writing prompt grabbed me; thanks again.


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