A few years ago, if you’d asked me about the building blocks of great novels, I would have yammered on endlessly about sentences. They can’t be too long or too short or all the same; they can’t be so complex or descriptive that they get in the way of the story; they are demanding little creatures, able to reel readers in or drive them off, and you need to crack their code for each book all over again.
All that is still true. But I’ve come to believe that sentence management isn’t the only key ingredient to making your writing irresistible to readers – chapter management is just as important.
I confess that I have no natural talent for managing my chapters. While I’m in first draft mode, I tend to just write scene after scene in whatever order they come to me – not necessarily in the order they happen – and the shaping takes place afterward.
Chapters don’t have to be any particular length, though the general advice is to keep the length more or less consistent throughout the book, rather than following a three-page chapter with a twenty-page one, or vice versa.
These are the guidelines I use to shape my chapters to hook readers and keep them hooked:
1. A killer start.
Much like the advice to start your book with action, the idea of starting your chapter with a great first line is solid. While I was working on my most recent novel, GIRL IN DISGUISE, my editor pointed out that my chapter-opening lines weren’t always knockouts, and when I looked back through the draft, I quickly figured out why. GIRL IN DISGUISE covers many years in the life of Kate Warne, the first female detective in Americ, and I was using the beginning line of each chapter to mark how much time had passed since the last chapter. In theory, this helps keep the reader anchored – but, to muddy up the metaphor, an anchor is a double-edged sword. An early chapter of GIRL IN DISGUISE used to start like this:
A year into my employment, I was a new woman. I paid off my debt to Mrs. Borowski and left her boardinghouse for a smaller, finer one in the Garden District.
In the finished book, the chapter begins this way instead:
I had been a Pinkerton operative for more than a year before someone tried in earnest to kill me.
That’s just a wee bit more exciting, isn’t it?
2. Rise and fall.
If you have a 20-page chapter followed by a 20-page chapter, but one is all action and one is all description, that’s a red flag for your pacing. Each chapter needs to balance action and description.
It doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re covering one scene or multiple scenes, but it matters how those scenes feel. The fix might involve moving a chunk of reflection. Often, at least in my case, it involves deleting that text completely.
Compressing the existing text into chapters is a key part of my editing process and an excellent way to put each scene under the microscope – are things moving too fast? Not fast enough? Are there key characters whose whereabouts are unclear because too much time is spent with other characters instead? Problems with the chapter are problems with the book, and one way or another, you’ll need to solve them.
3. A thought-provoking end.
Yes, you might have heard the advice to put a “hook” at the end to convince the reader to turn the page, and yes, that works sometimes. But ending every single chapter with some variant of “Little she did know what would happen next!!!!” eventually fatigues the reader.
Sometimes the right chapter-ender has a sense of closure to it, which would seem to fly in the face of the “hook” advice, but readers need mini-closure too, along the way. Whether the reader is thinking about what’s to come or what just happened, you want them thinking.
Some examples from GIRL IN DISGUISE:
“Your first case, then, Mrs. Warne,” he said, sliding an envelope across the desk.
But I could keep secrets, even one as potentially incendiary as this one. And so I would keep it, for a while.
And so I watched his face turn hard, crushing my heart with every passing moment, and finally, I just stopped watching.
I had planned on a month of this type of education. My plan was derailed.
Pinkerton told me I was needed elsewhere, and what could I ever say to him but yes?
So now that I’ve shared my chapter-shaping secrets, what are yours? What goes into your decision-making process as you shape of your chapters – or does it just come naturally?
* * * * * *
Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist who earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN'S LIE was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. It has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain's Freckle Films. Her new novel GIRL IN DISGUISE, about real-life 19th-century detective/bad-ass Kate Warne, was an Indie Next pick for April 2017 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called it “a well-told, superb story.”