As readers, we tend to take the existence of chapters within a larger body of work for granted. Nevertheless as writers, especially writers to want to write those larger bodies of work, the technical aspects of chapters cannot be taken for granted. For myself, I’ve never really considered the function and rules of a chapter, and so I decided for both my own benefit and yours to do research and talk all about chapters. First, how does one get about titling chapters? Second, what is the actual function of a chapter, and are there rules for how it works?
To Title Or Not To Title
The best reason to use titles for chapters is to keep the focus of each chapter in mind. If you’re worried about your chapters going all over the place and not working the proper function within the plot, coming up with a title can help. Nevertheless, I personally would highly recommend keeping chapter titles when working on the second draft. In fact, maybe even throw out chapter breaks in general. “The most effective chapter breaks are born by writing first, and evaluating the structure second,” and determining the purpose of each chapter can come after this.
As a word of warning, don’t get extremely specific with your titles. The days of chapter titles that spoil everything is long gone. If your title resembles something like “In Which Maryanne Discovers Ethelbard Is Not Her Real Brother And Flees To The Mountains Where She Encounters A Wizard Who Looks Into Her Future And Sees That She Will Die In A Great Battle,” you may want to reevaluate your choices.
On the other hand, you may abstain from titling. That’s okay! If you have evaluated that your novel is better off without them, go for it.
So, what does a chapter do?
K. M. Weiland states that “Shorter chapters equal a faster pace; longer chapters equal a more leisurely pace,” and she does add that longer chapters can create a challenge for writers, as readers can get bored of longer chapters. So, if you want to write a fast-paced thriller or mystery, stick to shorter chapters. If you’re writing a drawn-out small-town drama or a long, epic fantasy novel, go for long chapters.
Chapters, or the end of chapters, also function as hooks to keep your readers reading. Have you ever decided “okay I’ll just finish this chapter and then I’ll go to sleep!” but you end the chapter and you just have to keep reading? That’s the power of a good chapter hook.
A hook isn’t necessarily a cliffhanger but rather a question that your readers will ask which makes them want to keep reading. There are many different ways to do this, such as an important decision being made, high emotion, and many others.
Of course, as with any other rule with writing, it all depends on your personal creative choices. Maybe you want to ditch having chapters altogether. Maybe you want a string of one-page chapters. Maybe your sixty-thousand-word novel has only two chapters.
Usually, I give examples from literature and film in my articles, but this time, I want to challenge you instead. Look at the stories around you, and think critically about them, what makes them work and what doesn’t make them work. Learn from the greats, study how they made deliberate decisions to tell the best stories they can. Then apply that and make your own deliberate decisions when telling your own stories.
So, I ask you, what are the chapter breaks in your favorite novel or whatever you’re reading currently? Does the end of chapter make you want to keep reading? Why or why not? How are the chapters affecting the pacing? How can this help you in your own writing?
Thinking about specifics of chapters can be a step into becoming a more skilled and deliberate writer. The chapter of this column is over, so let it be a hook to the new chapter in your own life where you take your work to the next level.