óleo sobre tela de 90 X 1,40 cm, assinada por ...
óleo sobre tela de 90 X 1,40 cm, assinada por Alcy Xavier, datado de 1985. Assunto: Carroça de saltimbancos da Idade Média, na Espanha, segundo o pintor, inspirado num capítulo da obra Dom Quixote, de Miguel de Cervantes de Saavedra. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other day, a fellow writer posted a question over on about chapters. Just what makes up a chapter? What does one put in them? When does one know a chapter begins and ends? How many words go into a chapter?

The poster’s questions got me thinking, so here we are. 🙂

I’m not a biblio-historian, but it seems to me that most books have chapters. And, it also seems that a chapter is what you make it. There is no right or wrong. Just what works and what doesn’t.

I’ve seen short chapters. Long chapters. And, reportedly, there are books with no chapters. I have come across these brilliant observations after a lifetime of reading, and you know what? As a reader, I’ve hardly ever noticed them.

Other than in George R. R. Martin‘s POV (point of view)-centric Ice and Fire Series, where he dedicates each chapter to a specific character, I don’t really notice chapters at all. I believe I would notice if there wasn’t any, because I often stop reading at the end of a chapter, because it used to be a natural breaking point in the story. But not any more.

For those writers following the adage to end a chapter on a “cliff-hanger” (a point at which your heroine is just about to get whacked, or solve a mystery, or discover her lover sleeping with mother, or whatever), I read a few paragraphs into the next chapter and then put the book down.

Either way, whether the reader-me notices the chapters or not, chapters divide the text into manageable chunks.

For me, in the beginning stages of learning how to write a novel, chapters have become convenient containers for elements of my story arc. I follow the three-act story structure with Hook, Backstory, Story Trigger, Crisis, Struggle, Epiphany, Plan, Climax, and Ending. Each of these headings illuminate either a critical point in the story or the building blocks of my story. Once I outline the basic plot and emotional arc of the story, I have to figure out how to get my characters from point A to point B. I do that with Scenes and Sequels. It can all get to be a jumbled mess, so I’ve found it helps to organize my Scenes and Sequels in sections (or chapters) that support each critical point in the story. Nifty how that works, huh?

And by doing so for me, the writer, chapters also happen to do two things for a reader:

  1. Build tension, and
  2. Pace the story.

Mr. David B. Coe has an excellent post on the subject here. He postulates that chapters help to do three things:

  1. Maintain a narrative flow,
  2. Escalate narrative tension, and
  3. Keep readers interested.

(I’m into lists at the moment. )

Anyway, his thinking meshes with mine, which is why I linked to his blog and not another. Check it out, then come back for the exciting end of this post.

The Exciting End of This Blog Post

Chapter titles.

Yes! Chapter titles. Doesn’t that get you excited?

(If it doesn’t, you’re not really a writer.)

Also the other day, J. W. Manus posted about chapter titles or headings. She lamented that books now-a-days don’t have chapter descriptions, and that modern writers are missing opportunities to clue the reader in on memorable story elements.

Oh, I thought, but you haven’t read MY book which not only has chapter titles, but, if I had my way, illustrations!

No, that’s not true. Yet another of my grand delusions. I’d love to include illustrations for each chapter, but all I’ve done is attempt to follow in the rather large footsteps of those that I admire.

You see, in Don Quixote, Mr. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra divided his epic into Parts with numbered and titled sections. These more or less equate to our modern chapters and they are titled with some ringers. How can one forget Part I, Section VIII with a title like this:

Of the valiant Don Quixote’s success in the terrifying and never-before-imagined adventure of the windmills, with other events worthy of happy remembrance

Or Part II, Section XXV, titled:

Of the adventure of the braying and the entertaining meeting with the puppet-showman, with the memorable prediction of the prophetic ape

Sadly, my chapter titles can not compete with Cervantes’ quantity, but I feel vindicated with my quip chapter titles, because, in his latest book, Carlos Ruiz Zafon only titled his Parts (A Christmas Story, From Among the Dead, Reborn, Suspicion, and The Name of the Hero) and not his chapters.

Anyway, besides helping the reader remember what happened when and where in your story, it can help you as the writer keep track of the overall story arc. And titling your chapters also gives you an opportunity to dazzle your readers with an interesting turn of phrase, a clever (and short) anecdote, or hide a clue to a mystery.

The sky’s the limit. Make your chapters work for you.

So, how do you use chapters in your writing?



16 thoughts on “Chapters

  1. Yes, I use chapters. They are numbered 1,2 3 etc and have lots of words in each. 😉

    Seriously though, chapters are not important, it is what they contain that is.

  2. Cervantes published his own work. Therefore, he could structure his books any way that suited him and his stories. (and those chapter headings are brilliant and now I want to reread Don Quixote!) Nowadays indie writers can do the same.

    The structure of fiction DOES affect how it is read and how it is perceived. Modern novelists use chapters because, well, because that’s how it is done and has been done and it’s what everybody else is doing without considering why writers started doing it in the first place. Do we stop to think that it is only ONE way to structure a piece of fiction? The chapter structure has its real roots in serialized fiction. (if it was good enough for Dickens, it’s good enough for me, right?)

    Personally, I think chapter headings can be used as a way of helping ebook readers to keep track of a story. Plus, if one can reach even a fraction of Cervantes’ cleverness, the headings will certainly be memorable.

    Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., are perfectly serviceable. All they are, though, are placeholders and they don’t offer anything more than “that’s the end of that chapter and the start of this one.” It’s a convention and most conventions come into existence because they don’t offend many people–and inoffensiveness is deadly dull. If a writer has an opportunity to surprise and delight and intrigue the readers, why not take it?

    Good post, Nila.

  3. Oh, dang, now I have another challenge for the next book – lol! I thought I was doing good in Botanicaust to make my chapter headings pleasant with an illustrated number. I will ponder the possibility of chapter titles.
    My goal with chapters is to offer the reader a natural place to break, with the ulterior motive of leaving the tension high so the reader won’t WANT to break. I know, I’m evil. But I love to hear readers say, “I couldn’t put it down!”

    1. Yes, and you know, I like reading books I just can’t put down. 🙂

      And I wouldn’t worry about your chapter headings. I’m sure the illustrated numbers are fine and serve their purpose. I just find it easier to name my chapters than the book itself and I like it. So, I do it. 🙂

      I’m looking forward to reading your new book. I’m a few books away from it, but I’ll get to it before the end of summer (I think).

  4. As a reader, chapters are just a convenience place to stop.

    As a writer, I use them to signify not a cliffhanger but an indication that we’re going elsewhere for the time being.

    Nice observations though.

    1. Agreed. I use chapters to organize the parts of my story, and often that means “going elsewhere”, but not all the time.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  5. Enjoyed the post! Definitely find chapter divisions useful for both pacing, suspense and handy for certain types of breaks.

    Chapters are a convenient stopping point for readers so per the hoary advice, I do try to make sure that every chapter ends with a tease or question to entice them to keep going.

    As with dialogue, you can use length of chapter to drive tension: shorter ones for where the action comes quickly, longer ones to slow the pace.

    Overall, I do tend to write to a minimum chapter length (~3000 words for me) and break them up if they get much longer than ~4500 words but it isn’t a hard rule. One thing I’ve discovered is not to worry a whole lot about chapter length in early drafts. It will change a lot before you are done. Chapter breaks can be a later refinement.

    1. I agree that chapters shouldn’t be focused on during the early drafts. And, some might say, at all. But I do think they can be used as tools as you highlighted. But, please, no teasers! I need my sleep. 😉

  6. When I read Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code I was struck by the chapter length. At the time, I thought he had tapped into the current obsession with sound bytes and that made good marketing sense. For a few days, I even thought it made sense.

    I rarely look at a table of contents for fiction works, so, now, when I’m reading and I discover and I am up to chapter 150, I start getting pissed. It won’t stop me from finishing the book, but it makes me think less of the author and I am less likely to go looking for more of that author’s work.

    Anton Myrer wrote a classic: Once An Eagle. It runs 1291 pages divided into.five sections. The sections have 3, 15, 11, 16 and 5 chapters. That’s 50 total chapters running an average of @26 pages each. James Clavell’s Shogun runs 1152 pages in 61 chapters. That’s an average of 18 pages per chapter. N.K. Jemison’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms runs 396 pages in 29 chapters for @13.5 pages per chapter. Brain Sanderson’s The Way of Kings runs 1252 pages in 75 chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. The chapters therefore average 16 pages. For me, each of these is better written than The DaVinci Code and I enjoyed that book.

    1. Stephen Brust is a master of the chapter heading/title. Some of his earlier Taltos stories actually told a part of the story through the chapter titles. Frank Herbert used the chapter headings very well too, which is what I would like to do with one of my stories.

      1. Oooooooh, you just gave me an AWESOME idea! What if the chapter headings read out the story? Meaning, if you read just the chapter headers, you’d get a clever sentence that tells the story in a nutshell. I’m gonna try it. (Yet another diversion… 🙄 )

      2. You are absolutely nuts. However, one Taltos story started with a laundry cleaning list and the chapter wound be where the character got the stain. Another book had three related stories, one in the past, one in the present, and one in the title of the chapters, which all converged into one story at the end. Sadly, he has not topped this level since then (it was the book titled “Taltos”).

    2. Now, that’s something I don’t do – limit the pages or word count of my “chapters”. Because I’m using them to organize my scenes/sequels-thing-a-mag-gigs, the length is determined by whether they make sense to put them together or not. But I can see how a bunch of short chapters could begin to annoy a reader (or a bunch of long ones). I guess it is all about balance. Thanks for running the numbers!

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