Gutting an entire chapter can bring relief or dread. Relief because it allows a fresh start. Dread from the feeling of hours spent writing without progress. Though there’s no way to prevent cutting an entire chapter—it’s a natural part of writing—planning ahead helps avoid it. Today we’re going to cover eight ways to structure a chapter to help you more effectively plan your chapters.
The chapter structure we’re discussing is story structure. It’s how to arrange a story within a chapter. How long or short a chapter runs is not as important as the context of the chapter in the entire novel. Chapters can run a few hundred words to tens of thousands of words, but the same rules apply.
A Chapter Among Novels
Today we’re focusing on chapter structure found in typical genre fiction—not experimental. These rules cover the majority of popular fiction found today. Experimental fiction—stories told in reverse, a new narrator for each chapter, etc.—leads to wild and interesting places, but we’re not covering those here.
We’re also not focusing on first chapter or last chapter structure. Beginning and ending chapters carry concerns all their own for launching and landing your story. We’re focusing on the bread and butter chapters in the middle that link your plot together piece by piece. Understanding different structures can help identify the type of chapter you’re writing and, hopefully, keep you from reaching a dead end and trashing a whole chapter.
Ways to Structure a Chapter
#1 Plot Points—Front-loaded
The simplest way to structure a chapter involves front-loading plot points. Newer writers who lack experience building suspense tend to front-load chapters, yet there’s nothing wrong with placing the most meaningful parts at the beginning. It’s an important chapter structure.
A new chapter means a new start. The reader is ready for new information and a new direction. It’s expected. When new characters appear in the opening of a chapter, they front-load the chapter since the largest overall changes to the story occur with their arrival.
This type of chapter structure can be a great for early chapters where the volume of new information runs high. Front-loaded chapters give readers time to digest your story before the pacing and conflict escalate.
#2 Plot Points—To the Summit and Down Again
Another basic chapter structure—a middle-loaded chapter—works for a variety of reasons. A revelation, action sequence, or plot-altering encounter occurs half-way through the chapter. This gives follow up space. Characters react to the consequences. It allows you more control over the buildup and release of story moments.
If you have no idea how to approach structuring a chapter, this simple structure can pay dividends. Here’s a hypothetical—’what happens in your chapter?’ Answer— ‘Susan finds out her father is still alive.’ Good. We put the discovery smack in the middle and give her time to chew over the new revelation and what it means for her life. The discovery makes a stronger impact because the story has time to deal with the fallout before moving to new concerns in the next chapter.
#3 Plot Points—The Cliffhanger
Cliffhangers are a time-honored technique to spark reader interest. A cliffhanger ends a chapter with a reveal that shakes up the plot. It creates memorable moments. If you’re writing a story based heavily on plot, cliffhangers should appear. They’re too powerful a story tool to be ignored.
The power of cliffhangers, however, causes them to get overused. We’ve all felt frustration at poorly done cliffhangers. Why did a cliffhanger make eyes roll? Poorly handled cliffhangers feel like manipulation.
In many cases, the power of cliffhangers relies on an unexpected jolt hitting the story. Once the shock wears off, any narrative shortcomings may show. A story wrenched sideways for a shock too often will quickly get bent out of shape. Great stories contain just the right amount of cliffhangers. Leave readers hanging on the cliff, but don’t do it so many times that their fingers get sore and they stop caring.
#4 No Points—A ‘Nothing’ Chapter
Many reasons exist for writing a chapter with no direct plot progress. As surprising as it sounds, a chapter with this structure gives the reader and characters a breather, allows for important, quiet moments from the characters, and begins the buildup to the next conflict.The characters and the world don’t move in any meaningful way from the chapter’s first word to its last. These chapters work well as transition chapters. While the on-screen narrative does not advance, a ‘nothing’ chapter gives life to the story by allowing your characters time to reflect and grow. A ‘nothing’ chapter also gives time for events off screen to advance without a character or reader knowing.
A ‘nothing’ chapter constitutes a deliberate effort to take a narrative breath. They often follow major twists, showdowns, or action sequences. They give the reader and characters a breather. However simple it may appear, this type of chapter structure is important. It fits into the structure of the entire novel and should not be ignored. In isolation, the chapter does nothing. But in context, it’s irreplaceable. These chapters are generally shorter than more plot heavy chapters but not always.
At the end of the day a ‘nothing’ chapter can relay hints of the story’s major theme, reload the plot with events occurring off screen, or connect readers with your characters in their quieter moments. When used well, a chapter with this structure is far from ‘nothing.’
#5 A Geographic Journey
A chapter structured geographically will move characters between specific locations—from point A to point B. It’s simple and effective. Examples of this structure run rampant in fantasy and sci-fi books. Stories that take place in invented worlds turn into geographic journeys by their very nature. The regular need to answer, ‘where are we?’ and, ‘where are we going?’ colors the pace at which the story advances.
The downside of this structure is that journeying between points on a map—stellar or terrestrial—can get tedious. Journeys which ramble between flashy but plot-unimportant locations lose reader interest. However, when the map develops solely from character motivation, readers get engrossed. If it’s not important what happens between point A and point B, just skip it. Cut to the good stuff. Readers will fill in the gaps themselves.
#6 A Temporal Sampler
One way to structure a chapter is temporal. This type of chapter covers a specific amount of time—say, one day or one week in the life of a character. General fiction stories that involve character portraits often include chapters with a temporal overview. The events of a chapter cover a season of the character’s life. One of the strengths with this structure lies in the fact that it’s easy for readers to understand. Days, weeks, and months make up the quietly turning gears of our lives. Readers relate to a story that operates the same way. The simplicity of the structure make it worth considering.
The downside of this type of chapter structure is that is can lose reader interest. This structure works best in small doses or in stories light on plot when readers don’t expect a swift moving story. This type of chapter doesn’t pivot on key plot developments. It often moves at a leisurely pace, rolling through a specific amount of time.
#7 A Sudden Skip
A skip involves a cut mid-chapter. This sudden cut in the story continues with the same characters in a new location or time. On the page the reader comes across a visual break larger than a normal paragraph break or scene break. The skip creates a full stop to the scene, but it doesn’t lead into another chapter. This structure does not find its way into every chapter, but it’s a deliberate tool to launch a story a step forward and grab the reader’s attention in doing so.
It’s debatable if a skip of this magnitude should mark a new chapter. If the setting or point in time jumps significantly enough, you should consider whether advancing to the next chapter serves the story best. This is the downside of a using a skip. It’s a chapter break in disguise. Additionally, if it jumps too far away in space or time it can confuse readers.
The best use of this chapter structure it to remove transition scenes. Transition scenes aren’t always necessary and can clog up a story. If a whole scene can be skipped by a reader by using this structure with no loss to the plot, readers will fill in the missing parts on their own without being distracted.
#8 Moving towards a Merger
This chapter structure combines two separate narrative threads into one. Only books with multiple story lines can include such chapters, but it’s one of the hidden powers of such stories. This type of chapter contains this special meeting—the joyful reunion, the final confrontation, the heartbreaking betrayal—whatever the result, it’s here!
Stories that include two or more separate story lines naturally build intrigue as readers anticipate the eventual intersection. Expectations grow for when and how the meeting will occur. The downside of this structure is that, if handled poorly, it can damage your reader’s interest. It puts more of your eggs in one narrative point basket.
Make sure when writing multiple story lines that you work hard on creating impactful chapters where the story lines merge. Consider making mergers occur when characters desire it least. This increases drama. Merging story lines is a fuel for awesome stories, but they take work. The whole chapter hinges on this one moment so use it well.