I know writers who work in chapters right from their first thinking; I know writers who write their way forwards and just intuit when it's time for a break; I know writers who write (in order, or out of sequence) several drafts before they decide where the breaks go at all; I even know one writer who finds the decisions so impossible they get their editor to make them. This new blog in the Itchy Bitesized series is about how to make best use of chapter-breaks.
1) A CHAPTER-BREAK NEED NOT BE THE END OF A SCENE (unless you want it to be)
There are many ways of getting from one scene to the next, and a chapter break is only one of them. While a chapter-break can naturally create a "jump-cut" to the next scene, you can also exploit the "narrated slide", splitting it across the break so the reader is led comfortably forwards into the next stage of the story.
At heart, the scene is a concept borrowed from theatre: a unit of character-in-action - of story - but not necessarily of storytelling*. You might put more than one scene in a chapter, if together they form an important stage of the story as a whole, or you might split a scene across a chapter-break: many writers do that if they don't want (or don't know how) to move point-of-view, but there are other reasons too.
I suspect that if you did a survey of contemporary commercial fiction, you would come up with an average chapter-length of perhaps 3-7,000 words. On the other hand, when it comes to literary fiction, as in many things all bets are off. But, as with all things word-count related, doing the normal thing just because it's normal is the worst reason for doing it. A good reason is to exploit how readers are accustomed to chapter-breaks working, for your own creative purposes.
2) A CHAPTER BREAK AFFECTS THE READER'S EXPERIENCE:
a) "That's the end of that bit." Many readers feel a chapter break is telling them to turn the light off and go to sleep: that the action or narrative has reached a natural, temporary conclusion. That doesn't mean you have to "finish the scene", as in getting everyone off stage: the dictum "get in late and get out early" applies to chapter-building as much as it does to your novel as a whole. So it's worth checking: once the plot-and-story purpose of the chapter has been achieved, how much more does the reader need?
b) "Now we're going somewhere else." The implication of any visual break is that we've reached a storytelling break. Since stories are made of place and time, it tends also to imply to the reader that the next bit will be at another time, and/or in another place. This has two consequences:
i) how are you going to make sure, after the break, that the reader is quickly grounded in the new place and time?
ii) if you break away solely to avoid the reader discovering something that would otherwise be revealed by what the characters do or say next, make sure you don't do it so crudely that the reader feels cheated. To get away with this, make the narrative feel as if it reaches a natural conclusion, so the reader doesn't feel you're artificially withholding things.
c) "Wow! What just happened? What will happen next?" The combination of the break's announcing "that's the end of that bit", and the slightly extended time till the next bit, means that the last phrases and actions of a chapter ring in the reader's mind. Theatre folk call it the curtain-line or the tag-line, comedians the mike-drop. But, again, make sure that the break seems natural, so readers don't sense that the narrative tension is being racked up artificially.
After the break, the opening sentence of the next chapter will also have extra weight and resonance, by virtue of the reader landing on it. But that shouldn't trump its more essential job: quickly anchoring (scroll down) the reader in the new place.
3) YOU CAN EXPLOIT HOW READERS EXPERIENCE CHAPTER-BREAKS
a) In a long event where more than one crucial piece of plot happens - say, a big party where one couple breaks up, another gets together, and a third has a baby - you could use chapter breaks to mark the different phases/scenes. That gives the event some internal structure and scaffolding - a rhythm, if you like - even if the action is pretty much continuous and all the characters interact with each other throughout.
b) The ringing of the last sentence or two over the break, gives it extra emphasis. Which of the last few speeches, actions or images do you want to linger in the reader's mind - perhaps ready to be recalled or echoed later in the story? Those are often the one you want to end the chapter with. Be aware, though, that if you do this too often, with too much of a dramatic drumroll, it can come across as a self-conscious and artificial.
Actually, finishing with "Then she left, and caught the last bus home" can be as effective an ending as "I never want to see you again in my entire life!": if that cry comes three lines earlier, it will rings through the banality of what follows, and the contrast (and longer time till the next chapter starts) will heighten its effect.
c) Thinking like a poet is useful. Grab a good anthology such as one of Bloodaxe's Staying Alive, Being Alive or Being Human, and compare the different effect of end-stopped lines, enjambment, and how each of those plays out even more strongly over the larger break at the end of a stanza. A poem is a journey in miniature; novels are journeys on the grand scale, but they both need the reader to feel the structure, albeit unconsciously. Breaks are crucial to that.
* If we're being tidy-minded, you could say the hierarchy of units of storytelling from the largest to the smallest goes something like this.
- Separate books of e.g. trilogy
- Part or "Book" divisions with a book
- Sections separated off with *** or --- or some such
- Sections separated off with a double-line break
- Sentence fragments