First appeared on Uncommon YA on October 17, 2014
Think of the last book that grabbed you, kept you up all night, vowing to quit after just one more chapter. Remember finishing that chapter and, despite your best efforts, being unable to close the cover? That’s the feeling I strive to create in readers, that undeniable urge to turn the page. How to achieve it? Chapter breaks. While a gripping plot and engaging characters are key, story momentum is undeniably tied to well-crafted chapters. Each must be self-contained—complete, yet connected.
There’s a certain art to polishing every chapter like a separate little gem. Considering I’ve only completed two novels, I can’t claim expertise. And as somebody who doesn’t use an outline, it’s a little tough to offer best practices for determining chapter divisions. What I can do is discuss my own process, such as it is. Here goes:
Yup, that’s it. I crack open a notebook—sometimes head straight to the laptop—and carve out story. Drawing on my acting and visual art background, I slip into my characters’ experience. I see their surroundings, feel their emotions; I accompany them on their journeys. I actually don’t think in terms of chapters while writing. I tend to consider scenes when working on a novel; it’s a bit like watching a movie. My manuscript does tend to break into chunks fairly organically.
For example, with THE NAMESAKE (Merit Press, 2013), I knew Evan Galloway would attend encounter, a Catholic retreat weekend. It was a given that section, a centerpiece of the story, would span more than s single chapter. I knew there’d be a bus ride to the retreat center, a chapter devoted to Mass, and more than one excavation chapter in which Evan discovered shocking truths about his father’s time at Holy Family Merciful Wisdom Center. The division into chapters came naturally as I worked to tell the story.
As I write, I generally have an innate sense of when a chapter should end. Each section demands a mini story arc. It’s important every chapter feels finished, but equally crucial to remember completion doesn’t mean total resolution. This often leads to cliffhanger chapters. The mid-action break ratchets up tension, leaving the reader on the brink of catharis. Following this edge-of-seater with a small time-jump, taking the character—and reader—past the previous scene’s payoff, is also effective. It allows a suspenseful weaving in of resolution via reflective flashback.
So remember, heightened emotion coupled with well-considered pauses is the best recipe for narrative flow. Cleanly dividing your story into chapters creates rhythm, builds tension, and delivers a cohesive reading experience. The perfect chapter breaks almost guarantee those pages will flip, the bulb will continue to glow, and an extra dose of caffeine will be required come morning. You’ll have achieved your goal: a reader who’s equal parts exhausted and truly satisfied.