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The Role and Length of a Chapter
Don't Let Chapter Titles Intimidate You Either, Writers
Chapter Transitions are just one kind of the transitions in a story, right?
You transition from paragraph to paragraph.
You transition from scene to scene.
You transition from chapter to chapter.
Chapters often end with something that wants the reader to keep reader.
Let’s talk about chapters themselves for a hot second and hold onto the transition talk for next time. I’m doing this because someone sent me a distressed email that said, “CARRIE! I don’t even understand what chapters are.”
This made me sad inside like many other things made me sad inside this week. Anyway, here we go.
Chapters Aren’t Tricky Beasts
Some writers are magically lucky and just intuitively know when a chapter ends and when a chapter begins and how they work in a novel.
If you aren’t one of those magically lucky writers, this blog post is for you.
A chapter has a couple roles.
1. They let the reader have a hot moment to themselves.
Seriously a lot of stuff has just gone done in your novel and the reader needs a moment to pause, to inhale, to process everything that just happened.
2. They tell the reader that there is a change coming.
The fancy name for change is a transition. It just means, “Hey. We’re going to a new place or meeting someone new. Or maybe it’s act two now. Let’s have a moment together.”
A lot of people get super hung up on how long a chapter should be. Chapters are key elements in creating the pace of the story.
The general rule: Short chapters increase the pace. Long chapters tend to decrease the pace.
How does this happen? Short chapters tend to be about action scenes. Longer chapters tend to be about big transitions and emotional and plot developments. That’s not always true, but it usually is.
The chapter should be as long as it’s meant to be. The shorter the chapter the more resonance it becomes and that’s because the pause in between the chapters makes the reader’s brain go, “Ah. Wow. This one thing just happened. Whoa. I am pausing and thinking about that one thing.” Rather than pausing and thinking about a ton of things.
Some people think that chapters should all have a consistent length. Those people are wrong. I know! I know! I rarely say that. But they are.
Consistent lengths is a lovely thing if your reader likes consistency and the calming expectation of knowing every chapter is going to be twelve pages.
But consistent chapter lengths means that you, the author, are restricting yourself. You can’t use chapters to play with pace or emotional resonance. You are tying yourself up in a non-sexy way. We need all the tools we can have. Don’t limit yourself.
Chapter Titles Help Your Readers
How is that? Well, they . . .
You put these bad boys at the top of the chapter. And the reader thinks, “Ah! Look at that! I am paying attention.”
Tell readers who they are focusing on now.
If you have a story with multiple point of views, you can put who this chapter is focused on here.
Show location or time changes.
You can give the reader some help. If you have a time jumping, place jumping novel. You can use this space to say, “Hey, we are in sexy Scotland in 2021.” Or you can say, “Look, we’re in Zambia in August in 1423.” Or you can say, “Yep, it’s the Bangor, Maine Walmart five minutes later.”
Show theme or the future.
It’s like a happy little spoiler where the reader goes, “Oh, that’s what this chapter is about.” This can be about theme, too.
A chapter title can be a first sentence of the chapter itself (or even the last sentence of the preceding chapter). This creates an artistic echo throughout the piece.
Next Monday, I’ll talk a bit more directly and talk about the chapter transitions. I hope I’ll see you then!
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