While chapters are not an absolute requirement for any book, they are, of course, used in most books. Beginning writers often find dividing their story into chapters is far more complex than they first thought. So how do you break a book into chapters?
You can break a book into chapters by grouping together several scenes that belong together to create a self-contained story plot point that moves the story forward. Each chapter should have meaningful progress for the story, making the reader want to find out more in the next chapter.
The Art of Chapters
Breaking your book into chapters is somewhat of an art. There are no hard-and-fast rules that you can follow that give you solid guidance on how and when to start a new chapter.
At its simplest level, a chapter aims to keep the reader flipping pages. We want to keep them deeply enthralled with the story, not wanting to put down the book and chapters can help us keep our readers doing just that.
You can create your chapters based on a variety of things. For example, when you finish a crucial plot point, this is an excellent place to start a new chapter to coincide with the new plot point. You can also change based on change your focus on a character or place, a different action scene or possibly a change of pace to enhance the drama.
As your story progresses, you will generally see multiple places that become logical chapter divisions, but this may not always be clear. Ending a chapter on a cliffhanger used to be very popular and, although not used as much anymore, can still work very well but is not required.
There are generally two main choices when it comes to creating your chapters:
Outline The Chapters Before Writing
The first way is to spend time creating a clear and detailed outline before you start writing.
If you are one of those types of writers who prefer to have a clear, complete outline to guide you as you write, then it is likely you will have enough detail to plan most of your chapters before you begin the first draft.
Edit and Create Chapters After Writing
If you prefer to write a little more freestyle and just see about your storytelling takes you, then creating an outline based on your first draft may be a better option.
It seems a little backward, but yes, this is a technique some writers use. They prefer to just follow the flow of their writing for the first draft and then create a more structured outline based on that to guide them and tighten up the book going forward.
Creating your outline after attempting a first rough draft means you can divide your story into chapters as you go through your first primary edit process when you are also likely to make multiple structural changes.
Both options work very well. Just choose whichever one matches your writing style the best. If it seems particularly hard, then it’s probably best to focus on writing and ignore chapters in favor of the edit after option.
What makes a chapter a chapter?
To help guide you a little further, let’s discuss what makes a chapter a chapter.
A book is made up of scenes, a collection of scenes make chapters and multiple chapters making sections. Let us take a brief look at exactly what these are.
A scene is generally the smallest component in your story, and it shows a self-contained plot point within the story. A scene should have a specific, defined purpose and could be to show a character having a short but essential conversation or going through a particular set of actions in a situation.
Detective, enters crime scene, does interviews
CSI performing crime scene tests and finding something surprising and important
CSI updating Detective on findings
A chapter is generally a collection of scenes with some logical association, although a chapter could also contain just a single crucial scene. Although the division of chapters is somewhat arbitrary, unlike a scene, there is typically a logical end to the chapter such as a change from the heroes to the heroines' point of view or a location change.
The detective arrives at the crime, contains the three related scene examples above
The detective leaves the crime scene, heads out to perform witness interviews
Sections are not used often and typically mark a major transition in the story, such as different places or periods. Sections are sometimes called books or parts such as part 1, part 2 etc.
Before the war, the draft and basic training
The war and life in the trenches
Life at home after the war
How many pages should a chapter be?
Quite simply, a chapter could be as long or as short as it needs to be. If you have a critical scene, you may choose to put this in a chapter by itself and may end up being as short as a single page.
What you are writing can also affect your decision to have chapters and how long they are. If you are writing a long novel, you are obviously going to have a lot more chapters and possibly longer chapters than you would in a novelette or short story.
Chapters can also be used to affect pacing in your novel. If you are writing fast-moving detective story, you may choose to have lots of very short sharp chapters to keep up the energy level of the story, while a very slow-paced detail-filled dramatic life story may have very long chapters.
Also essential to keep in mind is the genre of your story. A romance novel may have many short chapters that switch between the main romantic characters while a sprawling space opera may have lots of long chapters.
Your target audience also often dictates how you structure your story. A book targeted at a very young audience will typically have far shorter chapters than a novel targeted at adults.
Should I name my chapters?
Naming chapters is very much a personal choice. Some authors simply use numbers, while others use them as part of the storytelling. They can be used to add clarity by using a few words to describe what will be happening in the chapter, they could be used to add interest to make the reader think about what could be coming or just drop some subtle clues to create some mystery surrounding key plot lines.
You can also use chapter names descriptively to set the scene time and place. This can be especially useful in novels with many different scenes in different timelines or if the place and time are significant to the story.
Fast-paced story set over single day.
Mall Loading Dock 9:14am: Attackers arrive
Police HQ, 9:20am: Daily briefing
Mall Sports Store 9:24am: Store clerk calling 911
There are multiple reasons to use names, which is a very personal choice. There is no hard and fast rule. If it benefits your story or just a strong preference, then absolutely go ahead and name your chapters but do not feel you have to.
Chapters are reasonably quick and easy to figure out. You just need to pick the method that works for you.