Story Development and Execution Part 6: Constructing Chapters

Ciao, SEers. Today is part six: chapter construction. I was surprised to find none of us has spent a great deal of time discussing the chapter as a discrete unit of a story. We gloss of things in a few posts, but never delve into chapter construction. (There is a post on scenes that might interest you if you’re looking for more information.) Probably because it’s kind of evident what to do—write a scene or series of scenes that link together. The chapter should reveal character and/or advance the plot. That said, I’m going to talk about what the proper development of a chapter can do for your story.

We talked before about your first chapter being your standard. How you should revisit it often to make sure it draws in a reader from the first word and keeps them turning the pages. It’s hard to argue with that logic. I’m going to take it a step further, though. I posit all chapters need to start with a compelling sentence and get quickly to a hook that will keep readers interested.

To keep readers invested, each scene needs to build from the last. If you read a scene that doesn’t advance the plot or reveal character traits, it’s dead weight. Cut it. Yes, even if it’s the best writing you’ve ever done, it needs to go.

Regardless of the characters in a scene and if they live through it, you need to make the reader care about them. ALL of them. The expendable secondary character that’s about to get shot doesn’t know he’s not the star of the story. He should be crafted as though he is, avoiding stereotypes and flat, nondescript personalities. Readers need to care when he’s killed, and you can’t get reader investment without making all the characters seem real. No one can be a placeholder or merely a device.

Your final chapter is as crucial as your opening. The ending has to do several things for you. It must pay off planted seeds, and it has to do so in such a way that there are no surprises that weren’t set up first, but you don’t want the reader to notice those clues until they see the reveal. Give them just enough that looking back, they see it, but while they were reading it, they missed it. Never mislead the reader so you can have a surprise ending.

Ambiguity is okay if the story permits it. (We’ve discussed this before and used Inception as an example.) All the big questions should be answered before leaving the reader with that final point to ponder.

Your endings must manage genre expectations. Romances are defined by “happily ever after” endings. Horror almost always has one lone survivor followed by a jump scare. You’ve done a good job if you meet those expectations but find a way to be fresh. One way to do that is to think of alternate endings, then pick the most outlandish, yet believable, one. If you’re a plotter, you’ve been working toward a specific ending. Now is the time to reevaluate it. Be willing to change it if you see a better one. The ending should be honest, poignant, true to the characters, and leave the reader satisfied. Again, that doesn’t mean you can’t have an ambiguous ending. Some of the best stories don’t answer that final question. The satisfaction is gained by giving the reader something to ponder after the mystery boxes are closed.

Now, a few points about the mechanics of chapters. Long chapters set a tone and are great for establishing mood and defining character. Short chapters create momentum and advance the plot. I once discussed scenes and sequels, action and reaction. You shouldn’t have too much action before getting a reaction. Balance creates a comfortable flow. Mix up these elements to give the reader a chance to catch his breath. Finally, consider where the chapter is in the main document. Why did you put it there? Does it drive the plot forward, convey information, and/or deepen character? If not, it’s in the wrong place and should be moved (if not cut).

To summarize:

  • Write a compelling first sentence.
  • Have a hook early to keep the reader invested.
  • Advance plot and/or develop character in each chapter/scene, or it needs to be moved or cut.
  • Write your characters so readers bond with them. That’s what will make them care about every scenario.
  • Endings are as important as beginnings. The most successful ones:
    • answer big questions.
    • are surprising but don’t come out of nowhere.
    • stay true to the genre but still feel fresh.
    • satisfy the reader, even if they are ambiguous.
  • Mix up length and purpose for flow and balance.
  • Fit logically in the progression of the story (or be moved or deleted).
  • Drive the plot forward, convey information, and/or deepen character.

Next time, we’ll discuss pacing, tension, and suspense. Until then, I’d love to know more about your chapter construction strategies. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!

Links to the Whole Series:

January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series

Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.

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67 thoughts on “Story Development and Execution Part 6: Constructing Chapters

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 10: Macro-Level Self-Editing | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 9: Writing Action | Story Empire

  3. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 8: Writing Suspense | Story Empire

  4. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 7: Pacing, Tension, and Suspense | Story Empire

  5. HI Staci, you have made great points here. I don’t like removing pieces out of my stories but I always have to do it. I have a tendency to over elaborate with the history of a character and almost write a short story about each of them. My editor makes me take them out and I turn them into short stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Michael. You don’t often see someone interested in learning for learning’s sake these days. I’m honored and delighted that this subject has caught your attention.


  6. These are intelligent and meaningful tips, Staci. I agree with everything you’ve shared. Each chapter should be so strong, that if any given one is pulled out as an excerpt, it will yank the reader into the story and compel that person to buy the book. Well down.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic, Staci. I’m okay with leaving the reader with some unanswered questions, but I feel cheated as a reader if the big questions aren’t addressed. One of the things that bug me the most are implausible endings. I like those “I didn’t see that coming” plots, but it has to make sense for me to love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I read a long time ago that the first chapter hooks a reader into buying your book, and the last chapter decides whether he wants to buy the next one. I think that’s true. If a book’s ending ruins the book for me, I won’t try that author again. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Another great post, Staci. We had an English teacher who told us that, when writing and essay, we had to make our opening paragraph one that grabbed the reader and the final one had to be brilliant because that was the last impression the reader was going to have of you. I love all the points that you make here – many of them ones that I hadn’t actually properly considered before. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is so good, Staci. I usually keep my chapters pretty uniform as far as the number of pages, and you are right; it is set by the first chapter. That’s not to say I might not throw in a shorter one when the scene calls for it. This is such an important part of writing a story, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a post just on chapters. I also agree with beginnings and endings. I think it’s important to end each chapter in such a way that the reader immediately wants to turn the page. Then begin the next with a compelling sentence. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise! I’ve pinned it for future reference.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Very enlightening, Staci. I hadn’t thought about the length of a chapter before, but you are so right about the difference in momentum. A short chapter can capture a moment such that it catapults the story. Great post! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like to have a short, punchy chapter on occasion. I use them often if I throw in the villain’s POV. From the reader’s perspective, they both get a break (from longer-length chapters) and are driven forward (because a short paragraph better be extra compelling). Thanks, Gwen.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I was struggling to find any prior SE posts to refer to. I wanted to be sure when this series of posts concludes, there’s a complete blueprint of sorts for a new writer to follow from concept to final draft. How to construct a chapter needed to be addressed. Thanks, Craig.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Great tips, Staci. Several years ago, I read somewhere that each chapter needed to be virtually the same length. I disagree. I’ll mix shorter and longer ones, although I try to never make a chapter too long so as not to lose reader interest.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That was an early lesson I learned, too, and one of the first “rules” I happily broke. A chapter needs to be as long as it needs to be. I’ve written one-page chapters in between chapters that were many thousands of words. Just like the length of a book, a length of a chapter (or a scene, paragraph, or sentence) should be whatever length it needs to be. Not too sparse, and not filled with extra fluff. Great point to raise, Joan.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I know (as a reader) I can’t resist a hook at the end. It takes a herculean effort on my part not to continue on when I encounter one. I like writing them, too, but I can never be sure readers find them impossible to resist. (Fingers crossed!) Thanks, Jill.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 6: Constructing Chapters | Legends of Windemere

  14. All great advice for creating compelling chapters, Staci. I sgree about the beginning and end, one has to pull you in and the other satisfyingly close it. Great post 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks, Denise. I know I spend a lot of time agonizing over the beginnings and ends. The middles tend to sort themselves out for me. But I don’t mean to say I don’t give them thought. I’m an outliner, so I have a plan, and I always strive to have my chapters be a scene followed by a sequel as I progress through different plot threads. (I find that helps with pacing.) Who would have thought so much goes into such a small, discrete part of a book? Thanks, Denise.

      Liked by 1 person

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