Writers in the Storm

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June 16, 2017

The Art of the Chapter

Greer Macallister

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?

*  *  *  *  *  * 

About Greer:

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.”

33 comments on “The Art of the Chapter”

  1. You write scenes out of order?! Oh, the horror! I'm going to have bad dreams now, I just know it!

    Great blog, Greer, and I'm struggling right now between the balance of pacing. I know I'm telling too much, which causes me chagrin, because I teach classes in this, for cripes sakes!

    LOVED your first book (The Magician's Lie) and can't wait to read this one! Page turners, for sure! Thanks for hanging with us today!

    1. Ha! My out-of-order habit is definitely an unusual one, from what I'm told! I'm sloppy in general, which is why I have to have all these rules for shaping what's already written. Heh.

      Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for hosting me!

  2. With millions of books available, fatiguing the reader is a real concern,,, not to mention fatiguing the writer.

    I believe that creative instincts usually overrule standard advice. I like to 'fly in the face' of formula. And although writing chapters out of order can be a pain afterwards, there's a sound reason for doing so. When a scene offers itself, it's better to get it on paper than keep to a schedule.

    Thank you for the great advice, Greer.

  3. So much advice is written about starting your book with a good hook. But I had never seen any advice about making sure the beginning of each chapter starts out as interesting. I have been concerned with anchoring my readers, as far as time passed, I'm going to have to check the chapter beginnings in my WIP. Thanks for the great post. Can't wait to read your upcoming book.

    1. During the draft process, the anchoring is really helpful, even for the writer -- but it's important to review during revision to see if it's necessary. Hope you enjoy Girl in Disguise!

  4. All great advice. I write my books chapter by chapter, in order, and I'm always conscious about endings that drive the reader to the next page. I'm less conscious about beginnings, which I will go look over right away now. 🙂

    When I edit novels for others, I am often perplexed why they ended chapters where they did. Usually, if I suggest deleting the last few paragraph or the last page, or bringing the first page or two of the next chapter in and making that the end of the last chapter, you end up with a much more compelling ending that makes you turn the next page and really improves the pacing in general.

    1. Erin, love your insights! Finding the strengths and weaknesses in other people's writing is often key to improving our own, and it sounds like you've got it figured out.

  5. Loved this! I write scenes out of order too, and then I later figure out which sections constitute actual chapters, so this is really great advice for me.

      1. LOL. I knew you'd comment! I thought Jenny would have gotten you used to this idea. But you know how it is — whatever gets the story down and books finished! 🙂

        1. Oh, Julie... Julie, Julie, Julie. You thought I'd get her used to this idea? Not even close. I don't even give her my stuff until it's (mostly) IN order!

  6. Great post. Need to stick this on my screen! Personally, I find I write in bursts of scenes all in the same "thread/PoV": what the antagonist is doing for the next few days; what is happening in the White House this week, etc. These eventually get knitted together and intertwined to create chapters. A lot of balancing of PoV, opening/closing and length - everything you have described. Thanks!

  7. Love seeing someone post on this so-important idea! 99% of the first-book authors I edit have written books that are either a nearly breathless read with endless running and battles and fights and feats of daring-do, or a ragged droning on with a few 'action' scenes to force the story forward.

    I've forwarded this post, with a gentle note, to all current clients struggling with chapters, and what they should accomplish.

    Great post, Greer -- thank you for sharing!
    Maria D'Marco

    1. So glad to be helpful! When writers struggle with pacing, the first instinct is to look at the book as a whole, but they don't always see the chapter as a key building block. Never burrs to consider it.

  8. Whenever it fits, I like ending chapters on a humorous or ironic note. Beginning each and every chapter with a hook can be counter-productive if that chapter serves as an information bridge between two other chapters - i.e. marking an event or establishing a fact which characters will deal with in the next chapter. I write SciFi, so the science and tech are important - a character on their own, of sorts - to my intended readers.

  9. I have actually written a black moment scene before writing chapter four - just had to get it down. Rough draft, of course. I'll be checking my chapter opening lines now. Great post!

  10. Very good advice. I will be sure to look out for this when I write from now on. Just curious - I tend to have chapter titles which often are puns, or little clues as to what is in the chapter (fiction - not romance). Are there any disadvantages or advantages to that?

    1. Ooh, maybe I'll have to do a follow-up post on chapter titles. Lots of different ways to handle them -- I don't think there's anything wrong with the approach you're talking about. As with chapter length, consistency is the key.

  11. I've read books with chapter titles and books without. I don't believe it makes the book any better by naming chapters, but would love to hear an expert's take on this, Greer. The book I'm writing now is a memoir about attending college as a mother of five and am wondering if I should title my chapters.

    This is a great post and I've shared it generously online. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with writers. All the best to you with your new release. It sounds fascinating.

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