It’s been a while since I’ve written about the narrative units that make up a story, but as I’m starting to see it become a point of discussion/disagreement again, I thought I’d revisit it.
“It”, in this case, is that most common and humble of story organizers – the chapter. The chapter allows us to break up long stories (and even shorter ones) into smaller chunks that can be read and processed as the reader’s time and energy permits. The chapter accomplishes one narrative goal, playing out one story point (possibly two if you’re following a subplot), and has a beginning, middle, and end (although cliffhangers have enjoyed a mixed response) so that a reader can put the book down at the end of a chapter with some feeling of satisfaction and just enough curiosity to pick the book back up when time permits. And if the reader were the only consideration, we’d be done.
But a chapter can be a useful tool in the hands of a writer who gets its power. Let’s look at those two descriptions a little more closely.
In a way, a chapter is like those essay outlines we all loved to create in high school – one main topic per paragraph. Only in this case we’re allowed one narrative goal per chapter. Ideally, a chapter should focus on a single moment in time. This may be a single character moving through a plot point, but is also useful if you have a supporting character or an antagonist who has become separated from the main story but needs to be caught up with.
The chapter may also show what a number of characters are doing in the same period of time, again using the chapter as a unit of story time. If you decide to track multiple characters through the same chapter, you might very well be tracking more than one narrative goal in the chapter. But don’t go crazy and overload your chapter with narrative points. Keep in mind that the human mind can only juggle a couple of things at once when expected to focus on what’s happening.
You can offset some of that by using a parallel structure in the chapter. You might be following two or three characters through the chapter, but highlighting similarities in what each character is doing will allow the reader to jump more easily from character to character within the scene. Or the characters might be working in opposition to each other, which creates a tension, interest, or deeper understanding of what both characters are working toward.
While creating these moments in story time, the chapter also needs to have an entry point and an exit point. I mentioned earlier that cliffhangers have employed with mixed results. It’s always good to create a reason for the reader to turn a page, but some readers complain that having a cliffhanger every chapter is tiring. Also, some genres and stories lend themselves better to the chapter cliffhanger than others.
But the chapter that ends in the cliffhanger can be useful if you’re releasing your story in a serial fashion instead of a complete story. It can be helpful in building tension when you really need a moment of impact. Some chapters, though, only need a hook. They need a sense that the moment of time addressed by the chapter has ended, but there’s more story to come. A hook doesn’t necessarily have the tension, but it does encourage the reader to continue on.
Something else to consider when deciding whether or not to employ a hook or a cliffhanger in your chapter is that chapters are sometimes used as excerpts for anthologies, marketing, or those wonderful English lit books we all wanted to fling in high school. A chapter with a clear beginning, an interesting middle, and a satisfying end makes for a better excerpt than one missing those parts; and a chapter that ends in a hook can make for a more viable excerpt than a cliffhanger.
I know there’s a lot here, but I really just want you think about how you structure your chapters with both your story and your readers in mind. Pick out an idea, try it out in your own work, and see how it goes. Keep playing until you find a solid structure that both works for your story and draws in your readers.