Elements Your Chapters Should Include: A Quick Guide for Authors

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If you’re thinking about writing a book or are already drafting one, you’ve probably wondered how to divide your story into chapters and what elements each should include. Since the chapter breakdown informs the structure of your story, it’s more important than you may think, so don’t simply leave it as an afterthought. 

Breaking down the chapters of a book isn’t the first thing most authors consider when they start writing, which is perfectly fine. At some point, however, you’ll have to start thinking about your chapters; this is usually once you’ve finished your first draft and are beginning to shape your story according to its natural rhythms, major events, and characters’ desires. Don’t just insert chapter breaks willy-nilly—how you structure your chapters has a major impact on the flow of your story. If you’re struggling with structure and pacing, check out our developmental editing services to get expert feedback. 

So, what are the main elements that should feature in all your chapters?

Establish the scene

Just as film and TV use establishing shots to create a sense of place or emotion at the start of a new scene, so books should achieve this through their chapters. Normally done at the very beginning of a chapter—especially one that’s shifting to a new place, new characters, or a different mood—it’s important for giving readers cues to help them settle into the new environment. If you simply dive into the events without ample context, your audience can easily become confused. Your character’s frame of mind should also be considered when establishing a new scene as the emotionality of the characters plays a major role in the way readers interpret the story. 

You don’t want your audience getting confused or bored, but you don’t want to be obvious and expository either, so make these establishing scenes subtle by embedding them into the narrative rather than hitting the reader over the head with the details. As always, the golden rule of writing is to show, not tell. Weave your main character’s needs, desires, goals, and fears into the prose to keep the momentum going, and mention key features about the setting to help the reader imagine the surroundings. Essentially, you don’t want the audience to even notice that you’re sprinkling in “establishing scenes” to help navigate them—to the reader, your book should just be pure prose.

Build tension through obstacles

Whatever your character wants and strives for shouldn’t be easy to achieve: That’s how we build tension. Obstacles—people, elements, and events that prevent characters from easily achieving their goals—are what will hook readers, making it essential to introduce obstacles to create conflict and hardship that will ultimately render the resolution so much more satisfactory. A story about a problem that’s easily resolved isn’t interesting, so make your character’s life difficult. Put them through terrible hardships. This is the essence of a story.

Though not every single chapter needs to be action-packed or overly emotional, they should all have obstacles, a climax (physical or emotional), and a palpable ending. Think about each chapter as a mini-novel, an excerpt that should have its own structure, narrative, and apex; for this reason, tension and pacing are so crucial to crafting a successful chapter. You want to hit both peaks and valleys in different chapters as a way to maintain a dynamic structure. That said, these aren’t set rules, and ultimately, you have to structure the chapters in the best way for your book. 

The focus of a chapter can differ dramatically, but the point is that each should have a focus. You can structure chapters around different obstacles in the story, stages your character trudges through to achieve their goal, time periods, or anything else that makes sense to break your story down by. You can also use chapters to switch between different characters if you have multiple protagonists. Whether you finish a chapter with a definitive ending or on a cliffhanger is also up to you. 

Give me a break

Speaking of endings, knowing when to close one chapter and start the next one is crucial to writing a page-turner. One effective strategy is to have important events happen near the end of a chapter so you can build up to them and close with a cliffhanger, making your audience more likely to keep reading. A good way to create a cliffhanger is to pose an intriguing question, cut a chapter right at the climax, or have a character make a questionable decision. If you don’t end on a cliffhanger, you still at least want an ending that invites the reader to continue. 

Chapter breaks are also great for skipping over unimportant events, changing the setting or time frame, jumping to another character (if you’re using multiple POVs), or simply giving the reader a chance to rest. However, if you’re wrapping up a chapter because it’s getting too long, make sure you choose a wise place to end it.

Ultimately, each writer decides how to structure their book, which is why there are no established rules for building chapters. They can be long or short, titled, numbered, or altogether omitted, but whichever way you choose to use them (or not) should be in service of your story and with the reader in mind. Building tension, creating obstacles, and heeding the pacing of the overall story are all arguments for writing chapters of varying lengths and levels of excitement. 

If it all feels too overwhelming, check out our big-picture editing services for authors to start working with a professional editor who can advise you on your plot, character development, and structural issues. 

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