Tips for Writing a Great Chapter
Books don’t absolutely need chapters. However, if you are starting your journey as an author, we suggest you use them. Presenting your story in chapters can make it easier to read and provide a natural break, whereas a book without chapters might overwhelm the reader.
Firstly, it’s best to master the chapter before moving on to chapterless books, which are harder to pull off. As they say, you must learn to walk before you can run.
Secondly, most readers prefer a book with chapters. Not only do these divisions provide convenient spots to pause, but they split the book into meaningful sections and allow the reader time to digest the story at key points. They’re particularly useful if your story hops between locations, time periods, or the viewpoints of different characters since they clearly demarcate the different sections.
The advice below is not chapter-writing “rules” but simply what tends to work for most readers. There are no rules, but knowing how to structure a book chapter well certainly is an art.
Be sure to also check out how we can help strengthen your story with a developmental edit.
The structure of a chapter
The basic structure of a chapter has at least one scene with a beginning, middle, and end.
Each scene is a piece of action in your story. By “action,” we don’t necessarily mean a fast-paced fight or chase. The action could simply be characters having a conversation, a character thinking, or a character doing something. Another way to think of a scene is a certain set of characters doing a certain thing. If you move away from those characters and from what they are doing, that is a new scene. Not every single little action constitutes its own scene—the scene is the package of the overall action, generally contained within a specific location.
A chapter can have multiple scenes. How many scenes it contains will depend on the pace, how you are developing your characters, and what plot points are being revealed. Think about how each scene is linked and if there are any natural transition points. It might make more sense to use sections with multiple scenes each as chapters.
Just like a chapter doesn’t need a certain number of scenes, so a book doesn’t need a certain number of chapters or a certain length of chapters. Still, it’s helpful to look at the averages since they are such for a reason—they allow the author to manage the pace and portion out the plot and character development in a way the reader can process. The average novel has between 10 and 12 chapters ranging from 1,500 to 5,000 words in length, with most chapters having 3,000–5,000 words. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should just start a new chapter at the 5,000-word mark—every story has natural transition points that lend themselves well to chapter breaks.
So, how do you decide how many chapters to have or how long they should be? There is no clear answer, as you can probably guess. One big thing to look out for is possible points of confusion. For example, if you have dual timelines, you might want separate chapters for each change in time so the reader is clear on where and when they are in the story. If you switch between timelines a lot, this may result in a lot of chapters, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Also, consider checking out the chapter conventions for your specific genre or audience. For instance, you may want shorter chapters in a middle grade novel.
Tips for writing great chapters
- Have a purpose for each chapter
The purpose could be to introduce a character or their motivation, establish a conflict, or propel the plot forward. Always ask yourself, “What should the reader take away from this chapter?” If you have to describe any given chapter, there should be an event or theme you can easily name, not a chaotic mess.
- Outline your story
Before worrying about chapters, consider outlining the entire story so you know all the beats. You can then decide where to break the story into chapters. When you take a big-picture view like this of your book, it’s easier to see the natural division points.
- Ignore chapters in your first draft
Similar to the above tip on outlining your story, writing the draft without chapters (or with larger, rougher sections dividing the story) is fine. After the draft is done, you can go back and figure out where chapters should end. Then simply re-write some sentences to end and begin your chapters appropriately. This gives you more freedom to construct the plot as you see fit, even let it run in directions you didn’t initially anticipate, without boxing yourself into predefined chapters.
- Vary the length of chapters
You’ll need different chapter lengths for action-packed sequences and character reflection. The variation leads to a balanced, well-paced novel. Besides, in order to write chapters of uniform length, you’ll probably have to alter the content, and in writing, content is king.
- Start each chapter with a hook
Use the first few lines of a chapter to hook your readers. You can drop them in the middle of an action scene. You can begin a chapter with dialogue so they will want to learn who is speaking and to whom. You can open with a question that a character is struggling with. Just don’t start a chapter meandering—keep the reader glued to the page.
- End chapters in a way arousing curiosity
A great chapter intrigues readers; it keeps them guessing what will come next or gives them something significant to reflect on. You can resolve a conflict, end with an important moment between characters, or foreshadow something. You can end a chapter with a major reveal that leaves the reader wanting to know more. In genres like mystery or thriller, you may want to end on a cliffhanger, but don’t overuse this tactic.
While chapters are not required to write a good book, they can break up your story in a way that enhances the reading experience.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for the perfect chapter. However, with the above tips and a bit of practice, you will get the hang of crafting chapters that propel your story forward and keep readers engaged.
Even the best authors need a little help making their story as good as it can be. To get your book in tip-top shape, hire us for a big-picture edit or get feedback on your story with a manuscript critique.