Monday, March 03, 2008

How To Write A Chapter...

When I first started writing, like most of us I would guess, I really thought there were rules regarding how to write a chapter. I listened to what my favorite authors said about writing and it was all so vague -- "write to a cliff hanger" or "make sure your chapter breaks are in the middle of the action' or "don't have your characters falling asleep at the end of a chapter."

What? Huh? That seemed possible to do maybe twice in a book - but write to a cliffhanger every time? I couldn't do it. And what I really needed to know was how long should a chapter be? What should be in a chapter?

So, I collected all the things other people told me or that I noticed other writers doing and I made my little rule book. Because without some kind of concrete guidance -- I was lost. Actually, more than lost I was stuck at the beginning. So, I am grateful to these little rules for at least getting me moving. Here it is, best as I can remember -

All Chapters are 15 pages, no longer than 20.
You should have a pov switch about halfway through the chapter.
Three things need to happen in every chapter - one big thing, two small things.

Of course, looking at that list I am a little embarrassed. It's so arbitrary and has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with good storytelling or keeping the reader turning pages, or pacing (which is really what chapter breaks are about - the pace of your book). And I wrote a lot of books with ho hum chapter breaks. Even some with my characters going to bed for the night, sure that "tomorrow would be better." Ugh. The learning process sure isn't pretty.

But the things we believe in when we start out - we are supposed to outgrow. We are supposed to get better than, otherwise we're not learning. And ridiculously, here I am looking at what those favorite writers of mine were saying about chapters and realizing - those are the only rules. End your chapters with cliffhangers. More than that - write your chapters to cliffhangers. That's just good pacing. Organizing every scene and every chapter so that you end your chapter at a point that the reader has to keep reading and wouldn't dream of putting the book down - is hard. Hard. Really really hard. But, it's key.

Thinking about chapters this way is making writing so much more fun for me right now. Things just keep happening. My characters have very little time for a breath and I think it's working. Well, it's working for me and that's all that matters right now.

Hey, anyone out there reading the Elizabeth Vaughn Warprize, Warsworn, Warlord books? WOW. WOW. WOW. I pretended to be sick last night so I could finish the last one. Don't tell my husband.

9 comments:

Maureen McGowan said...

One of the most clear truths about writing for me is that there are no absolutes.

I love how I decide something and it changes my life and how I write or look at storytelling, and then six months later, I change my mind or find a big exception to the rule.

The reason we're all getting better (I hope) as writers and not getting bored with it, is that we let ourselves question those "rules" we decided were so smart. But I would have been LOST at the beginning without a few of those rules. Still would be.

Heidi the Hick said...

Molly, when I read your book last fall I HAD to gobble it up because I couldn't end at a chapter. I had to keep going!!!! I had to know what's next!!! So I'm here to say that yes, your pacing is working.

I don't think I've ever thought much about chapter breaks, to be honest. In the book I've been working on for the last, oh, three years, I simply did a break every time the POV changed to a different character. Sometimes it's several pages, sometimes only a paragraph. My test readers said it kept it moving so I'm choosing to believe it worked...

Sinead M said...

Great post, Molly. I agree, looking at chapters, scenes in new ways and always making sure to keep the story moving forward.
So important.
So hard to do.

Kristin said...

Interesting post. I just break the chapter where it feels right. And if my chapter is 5 pages long, so be it. l don't know where the idea has come from that chapters must be of a certain length. Obviously, too long is a bad thing.

Right now, I'm just writing a book in chunks. I call them 'chapters,' but they are really just separate scenes. When I go back and edit, these scenes will most likely be combined for maximum suspenseful effect.

Do whatever feels right to you and works best for the story you are trying to tell...

Anonymous said...

I usually do what works for me and in the end I am happy.

I still go by certain things and they make for a better book but I've read books by some of best selling authors like James Patterson and even he doesn't always follow rules and he's a best seller...

So I guess at the end of the day - write with Passion and it'll all come together.

Anonymous said...

This was a really helpful post. Thank you! It was exactly what I was looking for and really it does go anyway you want it to, but it is nice to have guidelines.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Very interesting to see how other people work on their chapters! I'm a very new writer, but already working on a book (haven't got very far), and my main problem is knowing when and where my chapters should start and finish!
This post was a great help!

Ruby

Tahnee said...

Thank you so much, this post was very helpful. :} At least now I know my chapters are on the right track. Hopefully the book will be well formed by the time I lose my mind writing it!

Elizabeth Bolling said...

I really struggle with ending chapters. I think it's something you just have to develop an instinct for. Thanks for this great advice, and I'll keep working at it!

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