Building Blocks of a Novel: Chapters

Hi All! We’ve come to the final installment in my series on the building blocks of a novel. This is part five of a series built around a metaphor comparing a novel to a city. So far, we’ve imagined words as bricks, sentences as walls, paragraphs as buildings, and scenes as streets. Today, we’ll look at the final building block—chapters.

If a novel were a city, the chapters would be the neighborhoods. When you travel through a city from one neighborhood to the next, you notice the distinct and unifying qualities of each—maybe the architecture, the number of people on the sidewalks, or the types of restaurants. Often you can feel the transitions flow in a very natural way. In a well-structured novel, the same thing happens with chapters. Each chapter is distinct, but each one flows seamlessly into the next.

Here are some tips that will help you build strong chapters:

Create compelling openings.

If you want to keep your reader turning pages, enter a new chapter with a hook—a striking image, a compelling need, or a great line of dialogue. Some writers will plant a question in the reader’s mind at the opening of a new chapter, throwing off their sense of comfort and pulling them forward into the new situation. Whatever you choose, the chapter opening should draw the reader in and demand that they keep reading.

Here’s an example from Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton. This is the opening of Chapter Seven:

“Tell me you drink.”

I woke to rough cloth against my face and the smell of gunpowder in my nose. I’d dozed off with my head against Jin’s back as we rode. His words vibrated through his shoulder blades and into my skull, jangling loosely until I put them together.

What works about this chapter opening is the way it creates an immediate question in the mind of the reader with that line of dialogue, and then draws you in even more with a multi-sensory image of our MC waking up after a long ride on the back of a horse. Things are interesting, and we want to know where it’s all leading.

Build your chapters around conflict.

A chapter can contain one scene or several scenes, but a central problem or conflict will hold a chapter together. Though it doesn’t need to be elaborate, each chapter should have a beginning, middle, and end, with at least one turning point where things shift into a new direction or the focus switches to a new conflict. That shift will help the story flow into the next chapter.

For example, in Reign of Shadows by Sophie Jordan, Chapter Three starts with one of a trio of characters becoming injured and unable to travel. When these three characters are attacked, the conflict escalates as danger increases, but a stranger shows up—a girl—and she helps them defend themselves. Although they know nothing about this girl, she offers to help them and tells them to follow her. With this new development the chapter ends, but we want to read on because the conflict has changed and new questions are being asked.

Create compelling chapter endings.

Just as your chapter openings need to grab the reader, your endings need to propel them forward. Whatever conflict you’ve built since that hooky chapter opening, you need to switch gears as the chapter ends and keep the reader wondering what will happen next. It’s alright to wrap up conflict as long as the reader feels a new source of tension. If a mystery is solved, a bigger question should be asked to keep the story moving.

When considering where to put your chapter breaks, look for those shifts and don’t be afraid to end a chapter and open the next even in the midst of a scene, as long as the conflict has shifted or a new goal has been formed. If a scene opens with the characters searching for a key, for instance, and part way through the search they find a hidden bomb, the focus has changed. A writer could put a chapter break in the midst of this search scene, since now the emphasis is on this new problem.

Like a neighborhood in a city, a chapter should feel like a natural unit, but it doesn’t have to be stiffly structured or homogeneous. As long as your chapter has these three things—a strong opening, conflict to hold things together, and an ending that transitions into the next chapter—you have a lot of freedom to craft your chapters.

So there’s our city—bricks of words creating walls of sentences. Buildings of paragraphs connected by streets of scenes. The reader travels from neighborhood to neighborhood—chapter by chapter—until they’ve experienced our city of a novel from cover to cover.

How do you feel about chapters? Do you have any great tips to share? How about our metaphor of a novel as a city in general? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


2 Responses to Building Blocks of a Novel: Chapters

  1. Ariel May 16 2016 at 10:07 pm #

    Hi Julie!

    This was incredibly helpful! Thank you. A quick question pertaining to chapters, roughly how many words should one chapter be?

    • Julie May 19 2016 at 10:10 pm #

      Hi Ariel! I’m so glad you found this post helpful! I think your question is a good one, but unfortunately, it depends on so many things–the story, the events of the chapter, the pace you’re trying to set, etc. You may have some very short chapters, and you may have some that are longer. Some writers prefer one or the other. There’s no solid rule of thumb. Sorry for the non-answer, but “it depends” is really the only answer I can give. 🙂

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