Last week we talked about why I think chapters are important to a longer work. While any and all of those reasons are valid, knowing that you should have chapters is an entirely different animal than actually writing them. Today I’m going to give you my top tips for creating engaging and meaningful chapters.
- Decide what part of the story this chapter is going to develop: Chapters are essentially clusters of scenes from your manuscript that have been grouped together because they serve a certain purpose within the narrative. For example: The first chapter of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (PJ) can essentially be broken up into a few main scenes (Minor SPOILERS Ahead):
- A sarcastic intro to Percy and some background info about some of the other characters that come into play in the chapter.
- Percy and Grover are bullied on a field trip to a museum. Percy wants to do something to defend himself and his friend, but can’t because he’s on “probation” from getting in trouble earlier in the year.
- Percy studies the Greek statues in the museum and a teacher asks why the facts are important to real life. Percy doesn’t know the answer.
- At lunch, the bullying continues. Percy snaps and wants to get back at the perpetrator. His magic acts up for the first time.
Now, that isn’t a complete outline of the first chapter, but from a few bullet points, I think it’s pretty clear that the author’s objective here is to introduce readers to the main character and start hinting toward the main conflict. In other words, it’s meant to drive both character development and plot development simultaneously. This balance is what most chapters should do, but obviously there are going to be some chapters that are heavier in one area then the other. Deciding with this chapter is meant to accomplish is the key to determining what’s going to happen in it.
- Decide what scenes are going to best illustrate your goal for the chapter: Currently my chapters contain one to three scenes each. I like to think of each chapter almost as a separate short story. It has rising actions, a climax, and falling actions or cliff hangers that launch the reader into the next chapter. If you’ve used either the Hero’s Journey Outline or the 3 Act 9 Block Structure, those steps should be a good springboard to get you started. Pantsers should not discount this method either, as it can be helpful if you get stuck.
Using the PJ example again, the basic structure of the chapter might look like this (Again SPOILERS):
Goal: Introduce the MC and hint at Percy being a demigod.
Rising Action: Background information and minor character bullying Percy and Grover.
Climax: Percy soaks the bully with water from a fountain, unknowingly using his power for the first time.
Falling Actions: The display of powers causes him to be attacked by a Greek monster, which he disintegrates. Afterwards, he notices one of the teachers has disappeared, but when he tries to ask where she went, everyone seems to have forgotten she existed.
With the previous example, we took the chapter and analyzed the plot points that best demonstrated the goal. Here, those points are still relevant, but now they not only communicate an objective, but are their own compelling arc within the narrative.
Challenge of the Week: How do you structure your chapters?