How to Structure the Chapters in Your Book
It’s perfectly natural to focus on narrative devices like plot, characters, and setting before thinking about structure, which might feel like a secondary technical detail. However, structure will affect your story’s chronology, pacing, and tension, so you need to give it the attention it deserves. Even if you have the most riveting plot in the world, a poor structure can throw a spanner in the works and rob your manuscript of its potential.
If you’re having trouble with the chapters in your novel, check out our developmental editing services to get expert notes and suggestions on how to structure your manuscript.
When to divide your story into chapters
If you’re still working on your first draft, you shouldn’t be worrying about chapters right now: This is the time to get the story out of your head and onto the page. You can’t publish a first draft—it’s more like a detailed outline of all the content that you’ll shape into a great book. If you’ve already finished your first draft and are happy with your structure, logic, and flow, now is the best time to start thinking about your chapters, which will help you focus your second draft.
What are chapters for?
The chapters in a book serve several purposes, and each should be thoroughly thought out. Even books that don’t have chapters intentionally avoid them to serve a narrative purpose. Chapters can work as milestones in your story and give the reader a break, a moment to stop and place a bookmark. They also serve the author as tools to control narrative aspects of the story—for example, you can use chapters to shuttle between the viewpoints of different characters. They can be of varying lengths, but where to end a chapter and start a new one should never be an arbitrary decision.
For example, you can create suspense by ending a chapter on a cliffhanger or use a chapter break to change the narrator’s POV, the location, or the timeline. If you start your chapter with action—activity or dialogue, especially involving your main character—rather than philosophies or detailed descriptions of scenery, you’re more likely to engage your reader for longer. Of course, it depends on what your book is about and how exactly you’re writing it, but you always need a good first sentence to draw the reader right back in.
What should chapters include?
Chapters can be thought of as mini-stories within your story, each of them having its own narrative arc and structure. They have to connect to each other and work within the overall structure, but thinking of each as having its own purpose within the story will help you structure them properly. You can conceptualize them as separate episodes in a linear TV series. However, one big difference from TV series is that you can vary the lengths of your chapters, allotting to each the space necessary to tell the story.
Giving each chapter a purpose—introducing the protagonist (or antagonist), triggering their mission or exposing their obstacle, starting their journey or ending it—will help you stay focused and on track with the pacing while also making the structural flow more dynamic and engaging for the reader. Don’t fall into the trap of simply writing for a while and then starting a new chapter because it feels long enough—have an actual reason for doing it.
How long should chapters be?
There are no rules for chapter length and, in fact, many authors use chapter length to their advantage. For example, shorter chapters, especially a few in a row, can accentuate faster pacing and make the story move along more quickly, while longer chapters allow for more description and development, making the pace feel slower as ideas and characters can linger. Mixing up long and short chapters is the best way to create a more dynamic and steady structure and makes your book more interesting overall.
The way your chapter ends is also key to its effectiveness as it can leave the reader feeling like something was resolved or something big is about to happen. Chapters can be wrapped up at natural pauses (like the end of a flashback or a major event), with a cliffhanger, or at the start of a major event. As with length, where you end your chapter will play into whether a reader is compelled to keep going or opt for a break, so your choice must be deliberate. Whatever you do, make sure it’s a solid ending—a dissatisfactory one can leave the reader feeling robbed.
The same applies to the number of chapters in your book: How you choose to divide it and how many chapters you have will depend on your pacing and flow. You don’t want to have so many chapters that it feels disruptive, but nor do you want them to feel so long that the reader becomes overwhelmed. Basically, your chapters have to make reading your story more enjoyable, so keep the audience’s experience in mind. Figure out what works with the natural flow of your story.
How should you title your chapters?
Though most books have titled chapters, you can choose to simply number them. Again, these are stylistic and narrative choices that are completely up to you, the author. Still, giving each chapter a title does have its advantages. Chapter titles give the reader a hint of what’s to come, much like TV show titles do, and can motivate them to keep going. Titles can help define and identify different chapters to help your readers stay on track and also serve as reference points for events happening in the story. Again, your nomenclature should match your style and genre and not be disruptive, so do whatever works best for your book.
Structuring a story that feels so clear in your mind can be challenging, which is why so many writers work with an editor after finishing their first draft. Getting feedback from a professional can be truly invaluable and help you structure your chapters well right from the get-go, avoiding tedious and draining overhauls later on. If you would like to work with a professional editor on your structure and storytelling, request big-picture editing from our team of experts.