Saturday, October 27

Chapter Breaks: Where Should They Go?

Chapter Breaks: Where Should They Go?
"Stairwell, Annecy" by Alex Brown under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

A couple of days ago a friend mentioned she had trouble deciding where to insert chapter breaks. I said something blithe about breaking in the middle of tension, but it got me thinking. Where should we put chapter breaks? Are there rules of thumb?

As I was surfing the web this morning I happened across, not one but two, articles about where to insert chapter breaks. I love it when things like that happen!

The first article is Writing a Novel: Chapter Breaks by Courtney Carpenter and the second is 3 Ways to Know When to End Your Chapters by Aaron Elkins. I summarize their points, below.

Where To Insert Chapter Breaks

The Goal

You want your readers to continue past the chapter break. Or, since it's unlikely someone will read your book in one huge eye-reddening gasp, you want them to be interested enough in your story that they will come back after laying the book aside.

1. Use a chapter break to mark a change or transition

When you do your outline you'll map out scenes and sequels and then, as you write your first draft, indicate where you feel a good place is for a chapter break.

But that's the question, isn't it? What IS a good place for a chapter break! Aaron Elkins advises that "Changes of place, changes of time and changes of point of view are all excellent places for chapter breaks. (3 Ways to Know When to End Your Chapters)"

For instance, does your main character have to take a flight somewhere? End one chapter with him getting into the plane and start the next with him landing. Do you want to shift your point of view from one character to another? This usually happens at a chapter break.

2. Put a chapter break where the action is most dramatic.

Courtney Carpenter in Writing A Novel: Chapter Breaks writes:
The most important thing is that at the end of each chapter the reader should be craving the next chapter. Make the reader want to turn the next page. An old-fashioned cliffhanger is not required (though they still work), but tension of some kind is essential. End not where the action lulls but where it is the most dynamic. Give the reader new information right before you cut him off.
When you want to increase tension and make it impossible for your poor reader to put down the book--even at 3 in the morning when he has a 7 o'clock meeting--you can use one of the oldest tricks in the book: the good old-fashioned cliffhanger. You want to put your main character in peril, it seems almost certain he's going to die, he has only one small, teensy, improbable chance to live. It would take an incredible amount of skill/courage/brilliance on his/her part to pull it off.

You get the idea.

Use this ending sparingly. If your hero is in mortal peril at the end of every chapter and manages to save himself at beginning of the next chapter the trick will stop working.

Keep in mind that, as Aaron Elkins mentions, the cliffhanger doesn't always have to be about putting your hero in physical peril. It could be she has a deep dark secret she has decided to tell right at the end of the chapter. She reveals the secret at the beginning of the next chapter. Nice!

I hope you found something of value here to help with chapter endings and beginnings. As with most things there's no clear-cut answer. But I suppose that's why, at it's core, writing is an art not a science.

Best of luck!

Other articles you might like:
- Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining
- Book Review Blogs That Accept Self-Published Work
- What to do if your book isn't selling: Tips from Johanna Penn
- Dialogue: 7 Ways of Adding Variety

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