Writing Excuses 15.07: Creating Chapters
Key Points: How do you make chapters? Feeling! Some people create them, others chop things into chapters. Chapters have a beginning, middle, and an end, like a short story. Chapters have a miniature arc of action. Chapters are like episodes, climbing towards a finale. Chapters interlock, forming a part of a book. Take your outline, which describes scenes, and think about what scenes can be combined into a single chapter, thematically or emotionally. Pay attention to the page turn! The chapter break forces a new beginning. How do you begin and end chapters? Do you do cliffhangers or not? Chapter titles, first lines, first paragraphs may signal what a chapter is going to be about. The beginning of a chapter is like the first line of a book, a place to grab the reader and pull them into reading more. Use cliffhangers sparingly. Try to use cliffhangers with a promise of what you are going to get, rather than just question marks. Pay attention to genre, thrillers need tension. Make your chapters rewarding, but keep your readers wanting more, too.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode Seven.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Creating Chapters.
[Victoria] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Victoria] I’m Victoria.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We are, again, taking questions that we have been given and creating episodes around them. This one is a common question we get asked, which is, how do you make chapters? How do you decide where to break your stories up, and how to divide them up? I get this a lot, like in Q&A sessions that I’ll do and things like that. It’s always kind of hard to answer, because it’s not a thing I studied. It’s not a thing I ever looked at in anyone else’s books. It’s just a thing that I just started doing, and it just felt natural. I talk to a lot of writers, and that’s how it goes. Right?
[Victoria] Yeah, it’s hard to sit here and think about what are the mechanics or what are the rules. I feel like we’re going to be able to talk about a lot of our personal guiding principles, but not necessarily any codified guidelines for something like this.
[Dan] Yeah. Although the good news is, based on what we’re saying, listeners, you can take away that, at the very least, this isn’t something that matters is much as you think it does. Right? You can kind of fake your way through it until you get a feel for it, and it will turn out better than you expect it to.
[Howard] We had a difficult time naming this episode. I think… I just realized the disconnect for me is that I don’t create chapters, I chop things into chapters. I had a thing that is… I have a thing that exists, and I am deciding where the breakpoints are. Rather than saying, “Wow, I need a chapter here.” As we prepared for the recording sessions today, we have a craft services table with food for us. I got to unwrap a block of cheese. That block of cheese is probably way less interesting than the novel, but it needed to be cut into chapters, it needed to be cut into pieces so that Howard didn’t just walk away with a fistful of cheese. That’s the way I think about it. These are…
[Dan] I mean, he still did, but…
[Howard] Well, that’s because cranberry wensleydale is crack.
[Brandon] See, it’s interesting because I do create chapters. I’m not taking the whole and just chopping it up. When I’m creating an outline, one of the things I’m doing is I’m… I’m just getting it all on there. But when I sit down for the day’s work, I say, “All right, what do I need to achieve today? How can I form a chapter out of that? How can I have a rising action, how can I have questions be answered, how can I actually create something that feels like it has a beginning, middle, and an end?” Basically, I’m going to create a short story set in the world that is a continuation of other short stories.
[Howard] So, your chapters take shape after the initial outlines. I don’t want to suggest that I do chapters when the final prose is done. Yeah, I’m the same way. In that I outline, but I don’t outline to the chapters. They take shape later.
[Victoria] I think I’m in Brandon’s camp here in that I don’t like thinking about how hard it is to write a book.
[Victoria] A book is a very long, very daunting thing. What my plots do is essentially function like a series of escalating episodes. I treat each chapter as a short story, as a short story of kind of interlocking stories. Almost like a season of television than a movie. So when I’m approaching a chapter, whether it’s a short chapter for middle grade or a longer chapter for a fantasy, I make sure that I have a miniature arc of action happening within that chapter. I want to fulfill certain promises. I want to not only move my characters from A to B physically and emotionally, but I almost wanted to feel like an exciting little episode that does something in the interest of climbing the steps toward my finale.
[Brandon] Yeah, the great thing about this also is once you learn this with chapters, like… I don’t want to imply this isn’t important to learn. That’s not what I was meaning at the beginning, because I think it is. But it’s something you can pick up on your own. The great thing is, once you start to learn it… People ask, “How do you create a thousand page fantasy novel? How do you create…” I’ve got Stormlight Archive which is two arcs of five in a 10 book series, and each… It gets, like, that is way easier than learning to create chapters, which you do over time, practicing, at least I did. Once I got able to interlock these scenes, basically episodes, I could be like, all right, these 10 episodes make a part of the book. Three of those make an entire novel. Three of those make a super arc through a series. Then you start to do this, and the chapter is where that all begins for me.
[Victoria] I do the same thing, I think. Shades of Magic is broken into something like 10 parts, each part has maybe 5 to 6 chapters in it. Each part is functioning as almost a season arc. The entire book is like a TV show. Each chapter within the arc is like an episode of the season. I know that I want to create a certain pace. But also, I do this from a complete self-preservation standpoint of I would get completely overwhelmed if I couldn’t break it down into a substantial… Like substantially a smaller piece. On top of that, I like the satisfaction of a chapter that feels like we go through all of the emotional beats that I want you to. I wanted to feel… I have books where I have had a one-page chapter. I’m not saying you can’t do that, to a different effect. But in something like… The longer the format, the more daunting it is, the more I recommend that writers begin to think of them as many, many bricks in a wall.
[Dan] When I started, my chapters were basically just how much can I write in one day. Which is why in Serial Killer, every chapter is about 2500 words. Because that’s what I was doing back then. That’s still my most successful book, so maybe that’s a good way to do it. But, like, by the time I got to Makeover, which was like my 16th published book, I had… I’d become much more of an outliner. So when I create an outline, it’s this big massive thing that tells me scene by scene everything that’s going to happen. Then I will look at that and go, okay, which of these scenes need to be combined into a single chapter? Which is a little different than what you’re talking about, at least narratively. Because there’s not a single thread of storyline that goes from the beginning of this chapter to the end, because it will have two or three different scenes and possibly different viewpoints in it. But I try to do that in a way where they’re all thematically linked together, or where there is an emotional through-line through it. So we’re going to talk about this aspect of the story or the world or the technology or the magic. We’re going to see one character deal with it, and then a different character deal with it in a different way. They will inform each other. That will form a chapter.
[Howard] Chapters and prose really are the one place where prose and comics share a structure, and that is the guarantee to page turn. With comics, you’re always writing to the page turn. Because there is a visual reveal that is huge when you turn the page. With prose, you never think about that because you don’t know where the pagination is going to be yet. With electronic publishing, you know even less. Except for the chapter break. You are… I have yet to read an e-book where I was forced to see the beginning of the next chapter while I could still see the end of the previous chapter. For me, that’s huge. Because it means there is this psychological shift tween that thing I just read and not being able to read anything… I’m making the gesture, turning the page with my hands… And now there is all new information all at once. That is… I think that’s important to think about, because even if they’re just pushing a button to do it, you, the writer, now have a moment of physical puppetry control over the reader. You know they’re doing anything. What can you do with words in order to make that more effective? I probably just made it a lot more difficult for everybody, didn’t I?
[Dan] No. That’s actually brilliant. I’ve never thought of it in those terms, but I can look back… Even that first one, at Serial Killer, and see places where I did that. Where, hey, you need to be… “I’ll see you in the morning.” Then the chapter break is, “By the time I got there, they were already dead.” You can do tricks like that. That’s… Now I’m going to have to think about that and try and do it on purpose.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Victoria] Yeah. So, the book of the week is Docile by K. M. Sparza. It’s a debut novel, coming out in April. It’s a really, really fascinating examination of consent under capitalism. It is a slight near future alternate history in which our debt crisis has reached a point in which people are selling themselves into kind of an indentured servitude for a variety of functions. In order to forget this part of their lives when they do choose to sell it… In order to erase their family’s debt, they take a drug called Dociline. It’s about two young men in the story. One who has decided to sell his family’s debt off, and with it, himself, and has decided to refuse Dociline because of what it did to his mother. The other one is the one who buys his contract and is the heir to the Dociline Empire. It is about an examination of consent, of really, really interesting gender and sexuality, a lot of fascinating themes, and also, just a delightful read.
[Brandon] Excellent. Docile by K. M. Sparza.
]Transcriptionist note; Google Books says Content warning: Docile contains forthright depictions and discussions of rape and sexual abuse.]
[Brandon] Coming back to this, let’s talk about… One of the other questions asks about how we begin chapters. I want to talk both about beginnings and endings. Because, thinking about it, where I break a chapter is often based on where I began a chapter. Because chapters work very well for me if I have some sort of note I can hit again near the end to signal, hey, we’ve completed this arc, or a character’s looking for something, the character finds something. It’s this MICE quotient thing Mary Robinette likes to talk about, I’m using very instinctively in creating chapters. So, how do you begin and end chapters, and then, kind of a question of this, if you want to talk about… Sometimes you want to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, sometimes you don’t. What’s the difference there?
[Victoria] Um… Go ahead.
[Dan] So, when I wrote Zero G and started my middle grade series, I wanted to give chapter titles. Because that’s kind of a very good middle grade thing, I always loved chapter titles when I was a kid. That enabled me to set things up… This chapter is about X. Like, you know that right off the bat because there’s a title that tells you. I realized, in the process of doing that, that that’s kind of what I had previously been using first lines or first paragraphs to do. As a way of signaling a little more subtly this chapter is going to be about this character trying to do X. Some way of setting up, here’s what you’re in for, this is my promise, this is my establishing shot.
[Howard] Chapters, for me, are… The first line of a chapter is an opportunity for me to revisit the experience of the first line of the book, because often the first line of the book gets so much attention that, for me, anyway, the pros ins up far more refined. Not purple necessarily, but every word is exactly in place. I try to give that consideration to the beginnings of chapters because I see those as decision points for the reader. The… A lot of times, when I’m reading a book, I will turn the page to a chapter and realize, “Oh. Oh, this character. I’m not all this interested in this point of view.” But, if there is some turn of phrase or some something right there at the beginning, to reward me for having turned the page… I’ll muscle through it. But I’m a bad reader.
[Howard] Don’t write for me.
[Victoria] Yeah, because I write my chapters like short stories, I do put the same amount of emphasis into the beginning and end of each chapter as I would the beginning and end of the novel. I also really… I love it, like I come out of a poetry background, I love the challenge of trying to distill, not necessarily a premonition of what that chapter’s going to be, but I write multiple perspectives. For me, that opening line of each chapter is a way to instantly ground you in the voice. Because I don’t mark it. I don’t start the chapter by telling you whose perspective it’s in. So I’m relying on the moment of perception. I write it from third person, so it’s just a close third. But the moment of perception at the beginning of the chapter can tell you so much about the person that you’re following, about the things that they notice, not only what they’re going to be going through in kind of a hinting way, but just where their emotions are at, where their mind is that, all those things. Then, yes, like Brandon, I am somebody who because I write them like short stories, and one of my favorite things in short stories is the full circle moment, I love finding a way to echo by the end of the chapter where we are at. Then, every now and then, I try really hard not to overuse the cliffhanger ending because I think it gets tired. I think you have to use it sparingly. I think there’s a difference between having enough tension to make you turn the page and having a dum dum dum moment.
[Brandon] Right. I’ve… We’ve talked about this before on the podcast. I’ve… The further I’ve come in my career, the more I’ve disliked the cliffhanger that says, “And he went to open the door and…” dum dum dum. I’ve liked the cliffhanger that says, “And he opened the door and his ex-wife was there.” Right? Like, the cliffhanger that promises you something rather what you’re going to get rather than promising you a question mark. When you can make those work, I like them. I do like to use chapters occasionally to force the page turn. I think you do have to use those, particularly in epic fantasy, you have to use it wisely. The longer your book, the fewer of these, I think, you can actually use. Which is counterintuitive. But if it’s a short book, it’s… You feel less guilty making them read it all in one or two sittings. If it’s a long book, that will get exhausting.
[Dan] Well, that’s what I was going to say, too, is, in addition to book length, consider the book genre. Writing in thrillers, you want every chapter to end on something tense. Maybe a cliffhanger, maybe not, but if you ever get to a point of rest where your reader can say, “Oh, okay, everything’s cool. No one’s in danger right now, I can go to sleep.” You’re writing your thriller weirdly.
[Victoria] Yeah. So, I have a big fantasy series that I feel like behaves more in these epic ways, where you have to use them sparingly, where every chapter really functions like an episode. Then, I have a series wherein I wanted to feel like a comic book without pictures. In that case, it is the chop, chop, chop of the turn. It is treating every chapter like a moment. In that case, there is more grouping of chapters into a smaller arc. But it’s about… You can use brevity to the same effect that you can use length. You can use any element, like we’re obviously talking a lot about the opening line and the ending line, but every aspect of a chapter is the utility that you have, from the voice to the length to the paragraph formatting, everything that you choose to do. To how many scenes you want, whether you want to have scene breaks within the chapter or not. I think it’s about setting rules and expectations for your reader. It’s really weird if every chapter of your book is like 30 pages long, except for two, unless those two moments are affecting something that is extremely dramatic.
[Howard] Episode five of season two of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, one of my favorite episodes, and it structures for me, it outlines what I kind of feel like a perfect chapter is, because, all of the threads come together in this moment of triumph, and then we get a POV and realize, oh, wait, that wasn’t all the threads. Oh, a bad thing happened. End of episode. Page turn. So it’s enormously rewarding, and then there’s this piece at the end. It’s not that it’s super short, there’s this piece at the end which absolutely draws me further in. Yeah, my philosophy on chapters is that I want every one of them to be rewarding. I want people to be excited that they read that, but I want to leave them wanting more, so that the next chapter is something they’ll turn to.
[Victoria] Well, I just want to say, I think rewarding is a key word here, because rewarding is different from dramatic. Right? Like, I think there’s a cheat code sense that if you want the chapter to be the most exciting version of itself, for the most rewarding version of itself, you have to end in this like dum dum dum, whether implied dum dum dum or actual dum dum dum. Sometimes, the most rewarding thing that a chapter can do is give you the equivalent of a full meal, and then the promise of something new. I think it’s about also… It’s about balance. It’s about varying it between those things.
[Dan] So, just last week, I read Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett, which is part of the Tiffany Aching series, one of my favorite ones. There was a chapter in there with a funeral. It ends with the funeral. There’s no cliffhanger whatsoever. There’s absolutely nothing to drive you forward. It is completely final. But. The way that the ending was written was so beautiful. It was this perfect capstone to the dead person’s life, to the survivors moving on and still going forward, that I couldn’t wait to read the next chapter. Because I’m like, “This is so beautiful. How can I not be reading this?”
[Brandon] Curiously, the Terry Pratchett young adult novels use chapters and his adult novels don’t. There’s no chapters, they just are scene, scene, scene, no numbers. I’ve always found that very interesting. Why he chose to do one way or another, I’m sure he answered at some point.
[Brandon] We are out of time for this episode. Although I have some homework for you. I would like you to take something you’ve written, and try moving the chapter breaks around. See how it feels to you to force yourself to end in the middle of what you thought was a scene. How to add more onto your chapter and end there. I bet you will find that you’re doing this pretty naturally, that you’re already creating these arcs. But maybe you’ll learn something interesting about your writing and be a little more intentional about it. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.