Making Sure Your Chapter Has a Structure

Sunday, July 25, 2021
We talk a lot about the structure of a novel or even a short story, memoir, or creative nonfiction essay.  The other part of a novel that really needs structure are your chapters. I know--it's a lot to think about. But if you think of each one of your chapters as a standalone piece that makes up a bigger manuscript, your writing will be tight, your plot will be top-notch, and your readers will be flipping through your pages and ready for your next novel. 

Like a novel, chapters also have a beginning, middle, and end. Here's what each part of the chapter should do!

Beginnings: 

Beginnings of chapters need to do two things:
  • Establish where and when the plot is continuing. Sometimes, chapter beginnings pick up right after the ending of the previous chapter, and sometimes, the characters are in a completely different time and place. Also, you can't assume that someone did not put down your book when he or she finished your chapter. It's always good to orient the reader at the beginning of a chapter. Look at how your favorite authors do this without you even noticing it, and use their methods.
  • Chapter beginnings should also catch readers' attention, just like the beginning of a novel does. The first line of a chapter is important, just like the first line of a novel. 

Middle:

Chapter middles must move the plot along and/or reveal something important about the character. Some chapter middles will introduce or wrap up subplots, some will get the main character in more "hot water", and some will ramp up the action to a climax while revealing that annoying flaw your protagonist has. 

Have a plan for each of your chapters and a reason why that chapter and its events are in there. This doesn't mean you need an outline or anything official, but think about your favorite books or TV shows, you can probably explain why the writers had each scene in there, right? Your readers should be able to do the same with your chapters' events.

End:

Your chapter endings are extremely important. Some writers have trouble figuring out where to end a chapter. That's why having a plan for your middle and a reason for the events in a chapter are important for writing. Your chapter should end on a hook when possible. This doesn't mean that your main character has to be falling off a cliff every chapter ending, but something should be there to entice your reader to not turn off the light, close the book, and go to bed when they finish the previous chapter.

If hooks are hard for you, study your favorite authors and see how they do it. What types of last lines do they use. How do they make you want to keep reading?

Another trick is write the chapter and stop where you think it should naturally stop, even if there is no hook. Then go about a half-page up and read there--if you decided to end the chapter a half-page up, then would there be a hook? Probably! You might have to rewrite a little, but at least you are stopping in the middle of a scene, and then you can put the rest of the scene at the beginning of the next chapter--but don't forget to orient your reader.

Paying attention to your chapter structure, like you pay attention to the structure of your entire manuscript, will help you write a successful, page-turning, well-read and loved book for readers!


Margo L. Dill is an author, writing coach, publisher, and writing instructor, living in St. Louis, MO. Her next novel writing class for WOW! starts on September 3. Check it out here. Find out more about Margo here on her website, https://www.margoldill.com




3 comments:

Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--Your hints for working on chapters are good ones. It's important to structure the whole piece, but each component (chapter) needs to be compelling and needs to move the story along.

Angela said...

Fantastic and helpful post, Margo! You're so right about orienting the reader. It's a tedious task, but essential. My favorite thing to do is write hooks, and I also like to divide scenes in half sometimes to create chapter cliffhangers.

I read some advice from K.M. Weiland who structures her novel chapters like this (which creates a cliffhanger):
Chapter
- Sequel Reaction
- Sequel Dilemma
- Sequel Decision
[scene break]
- Scene Goal
- Scene Conflict
- Scene Diaster
[chapter break]

She meant it for fiction, but I find it works well for memoir since the first part of the chapter allows the characters to respond to whatever happened, which allows for reflection, an essential part of memoir. However, I don't always use that structure and opt for almost an essay-type chapter where the structure is contained within the chapter unit. But it's too tidy!

I love that there are so many ways to structure a chapter! :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Ang,
Love K.M. Weiland!

Margo,
I'm discovering that my chapters aren't always scenes. Sometimes they are two scenes. Sometimes they split a scene in two.

Am I doing it right? That remains to be seen, but now I've got your tips to help me along the way. Thank you!

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