On Chapters, and When to Break Them

Many authors I know write books with chapters.

I don’t.

Before the people who read my books start pointing fingers and calling me a liar (pants on fire), allow me to explain.

I outline my books before I write, often in great detail. (That is, I thought it was great detail until I heard Jeffery Deaver at last September’s Colorado Gold–his fifty-page outlines put my ten-pagers to shame, but I digress…) 

When the outline is finished, I write the entire manuscript from start to finish without any breaks–except for the kind that involve removing my fingers from the keys. The result is one file, in Microsoft Word, that usually runs somewhere between 65,000 and 70,000 words upon completion. No chapter breaks, no scene breaks, just a jumble of hopefully-connected words that add up to a vomit-colored pile of story.

Time for the second draft.

Draft 2 consists of mechanical fixes: straightening the story’s bones, fixing the subplots, and basically ensuring the gears don’t grind in fatal ways when the engine runs. When I’m finished, the story is (normally) fairly solid, but it still lacks chapter breaks.

Depending on the amount of rearranging and fixing I need to do, the chapter breaks normally don’t go in until Draft 4, when the story is into the polish phase. The reason?

Inserted at the proper time, chapter breaks can help a writer (that’s me, in case you’re keeping track) locate overly lengthy scenes and saggy spots in the plot.

Chapter breaks should come at a natural “break” in the story’s action (in my novels, that normally means some kind of a cliffhanger or a place where the action compels the reader to read on instead of grabbing a bookmark and calling it a night). When you write to fairly standard chapter lengths (as I do), inserting the chapter breaks can reveal where a chapter runs too long.

In the Shinobi Mysteries, the ideal chapter should be 5-6 manuscript pages long, but I frequently discover that the natural break in the action occurs on page 7 rather than 5 or 6. This means it’s time to go back and review, and see where the story needs a little trimming. Sometimes, there’s nothing to cut, and the chapter simply ends up being longer. Far more often, there’s overwritten description, excessive dialogue, or something else that I can trim to improve the chapter’s length and pace.

This might not work for everyone, but holding the chapter breaks until the later drafts has proven a valuable tool in my writing arsenal. Sometimes, I look at a chapter and think “I’m going to have to split this somewhere else–I can’t find anything to cut,” but most of the time, it’s me that’s wrong. At a minimum, it’s a useful exercise that forces me to ensure that everything in the novel happens not only for a reason, but for an important and justifiable reason–which isn’t the same as “it’s there because I like it.”

Have you got a system for inserting chapter breaks? I’d love to hear what works for you as well.


2 thoughts on “On Chapters, and When to Break Them

  • October 28, 2015 at 3:22 am

    I do scenes around 1,500 words or less, which is good from the pacing side. I also like the length because it tells me where I should end the scene. Previously, I would keep writing and writing, and then finally just pick a spot, and it’d be over 3K.

    With my 1,500 word scenes, it’s usually one per chapter, unless a couple of the scenes feels like they should go together.

    • November 27, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      That sounds like a great way to organize your writing! Thank you for sharing!

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