How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

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How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby Mike Dickson » 01 Sep 2010, 04:17

A simple question, and I know there could be many reasons but what would they teach you in creative writing class or something like that?

Do you write fluidly and insert chapter breaks later on, or do you write in chapters to begin with?
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby wonderactivist » 01 Sep 2010, 06:59

Hi Mike,
I'm no expert, but the advice I received is to write the scenes initially as they appear in my head. When I revise, I look for breaks that drive the reader forward, leaving a cliffhanger or that feeling of an unfinished song. I avoid the types of breaks that my English teacher would have advised: no logical conclusions should ever end a chapter.

To me it's like reading ee cummings' poetry; the end of the line is not the end of a thought or sentence, but the combination of words in that line have their own logic. Here's a short one:

Now i lay(with everywhere around)
me(the great dim deep sound
of rain;and of always and of nowhere)and
what a gently welcoming darkestness--

now i lay me down(in a most steep
more than music)feeling that sunlight is
(life and day are)only loaned:whereas
night is given(night and death and the rain

are given;and given is how beautifully snow)

now i lay me down to dream of(nothing
i or any somebody or you
can begin to begin to imagine)

something which nobody may keep.
now i lay me down to dream of Spring


In the same way, the end of a chapter doesn't resolve anything in the immediate action, but it does wrap up an idea or theme that I'm presenting in that chapter.

Hope I'm making sense,

Lucie
unpublished, penning her second mystery
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby polymath » 01 Sep 2010, 07:50

I've taken hours of creative writing courses, high school, community college, and university. Chapter ending wasn't taught so much as evaluated. It's been my experience it's treated as an aesthetic, it either feels ended or it doesn't and commentary generally responds accordingly.

There are some structural principles involved for guidance. A chapter is a smaller dramatic unit than a novel, similar in structure to the whole novel, like a fractal tesselation of the whole. A chapter has a beginning introduction of a complication, middle efforts to address the complication, and ending outcome of addressing the complication, plus a transition setup. A chapter usually covers a discovery and a reversal or a reversal then a discovery or discovery, reversal, discovery or reversal, discovery, reversal, etc.

A chapter ought to depict a minor transformation. The opening should depict an inciting moment, the middle a tragic moment, and a final crisis moment like the whole should. Of course, a chapter should have a setting, a plot, an idea, characters, and an event, causal flow, tension's empathy and suspense, and antagonism.

The outcome of the main complication should remain in doubt until the final chapter. However, intermediate chapters should depict forward progress in a two steps forward one step back kind of pattern from minor complication outcomes.

Differences between chapters in an opening one should introduce the main complication and upset emotional equilibrium. Middle chapters should increase emotional disequilbrium and build on the complication and timely depict outcomes of some minor complications. An ending one should depict a final outcome and unequivocal and irrevocable transformation and restore emotional equilbrium.
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby CourtneyLeigh » 01 Sep 2010, 08:11

Well, crap. I think I need to go look at my chapters again.

But, for me, intuition usually serves as my guide when breaking chapters. I've always broken as I write. Sometimes I already know what I need in a chapter and just write the chapter all in one take. In my own writing, I'm not a fan of breaking a scene into more than one chapter (I would, though, if absolutely necessary, and it doesn't bother me in the writing of others), but I try to make chapters cohesive. I like the idea of chapters being their own little short story. Maybe I'm limiting myself, but it's what I like.
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby stephmcgee » 01 Sep 2010, 08:12

I go by my gut, too. Sometimes I'll be writing and I'll keep going until things are tidy. But then it doesn't sit well with me so I go back and take the last three to four paragraphs and move them to the beginning of the next chapter.
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby Sommer Leigh » 01 Sep 2010, 10:09

I can kind of "feel" when the break needs to happen. I also use scene breaks sometimes when I've got several scenes that are important to each other but would otherwise not feel like a whole chapter on their own. I don't know about specific guidelines, but what I've always been told is that a scene or chapter should have some transformation from beginning to end to be a completed scene/chapter. How a character/event starts in the beginning should be different in some important way at the end.
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby sierramcconnell » 01 Sep 2010, 10:44

I always did it by feeling but I guess I should go back and look to see if the feeling was right! XD No one has called me on it yet, though...

But I am that person who has thirteen chapters only to her 110,000 word novel. Some are short. Some are long. Thirteen is a divine number. It is also to show that while some moments in life are brief, there are those you wish would just END. Like the battle. No one yet has set they hate the spacing. They actually love the book. So I'll leave it the way it is.

I've seen books in print with two page chapters. XD
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby Beethovenfan » 01 Sep 2010, 13:28

Read, read, read. See how other authors do it; get a feel of the ebb and flo of books you are familiar with and see if yours has a similarly good "feel." For me it's a gut thing. I don't think I could sit down and say "this is this" and "that is that." If I feel it's the right time to end a chapter (or start a new one) then I do it. Once in a while, in the editing process, I may have to change where a chapter ends or begins, but it's usually minor.
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby Emerald_Resonance » 01 Sep 2010, 16:44

polymath wrote:There are some structural principles involved for guidance. A chapter is a smaller dramatic unit than a novel, similar in structure to the whole novel, like a fractal tesselation of the whole. A chapter has a beginning introduction of a complication, middle efforts to address the complication, and ending outcome of addressing the complication, plus a transition setup. A chapter usually covers a discovery and a reversal or a reversal then a discovery or discovery, reversal, discovery or reversal, discovery, reversal, etc.

A chapter ought to depict a minor transformation. The opening should depict an inciting moment, the middle a tragic moment, and a final crisis moment like the whole should. Of course, a chapter should have a setting, a plot, an idea, characters, and an event, causal flow, tension's empathy and suspense, and antagonism.

The outcome of the main complication should remain in doubt until the final chapter. However, intermediate chapters should depict forward progress in a two steps forward one step back kind of pattern from minor complication outcomes.


In my WIP, each chapter is from a different POV, so whenever I want to switch POV, I start a new chapter. It usually works out that each chapter centers around 'a minor transformation'. Either the characters have made a decision, the situtuation has changed, a discovery has been made, or the reader gains insight into the character. The benefit of this is that when I think of the story, I can think of it in distinct units. I generally end the chapter on the verge of transitioning to the next decision/discovery/change.

I think a good rule of thumb is that however you end the chapter, it should be in a way so that the reader doesn't go, "Huh. I wonder why he ended it there." If you want a cliffhanger, then leave the reader hanging with real, justified tension. If not, then end with a sentence or paragraph that signals a mini conclusion. But don't end a chapter without being intentional.
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby JustineDell » 02 Sep 2010, 07:16

If you tie everything up in each chapter, where's the hook? In almost every book I've read, most chapters end on hooks--that's what makes you want to keep reading. Right?

In my newest wip, each chapter ends on a hook, making you wonder what happens right after that. Is it right? Maybe, maybe not. I don't think there are hard and fast rules for when to end your chapters. Some chapters are short, some are long. As the writer, you can "feel" (someone already pointed this out) when the chapter needs to end and something else needs to begin.

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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby polymath » 02 Sep 2010, 09:14

The way I understand hook, it's a device, it's a literary technique, it's both. I think it's widely misunderstood though. For many writers a hook is an action opening, a device that might not hook from being overblown. A hook in a chapter ending transitions to the next chapter, but not necessarily as a cliffhanger, which is a widely deprecated device. An opening hook could also be a thematic opening. The opening sentence of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a thematic opening hook.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

An opening hook ought to introduce a central suspense question based upon a main dramatic complication, or in some circumstances a bridging complication related to the main complication, that, regardless, artfully poses some iteration of the basic suspense question in readers' minds. What will happen next? Artfully posing the question and artfully delaying the answer is the height of narrative arts. Pride and Prejudice's opening sentence does the job admirably. Is the single man in possession of a good fortune really in want of a wife? Oh my, what will happen next? Complications ensue.

Chapters artfully pose and answer minor suspense questions and leave the answer to the central suspense question in doubt. Ending a chapter with the central suspense question unanswered, except the final chapter, compels readers on to the next chapter by itself.

Within a chapter in order to move a plot forward a protagonist must answer a pending minor suspense question that might pose another or not. Tension can only build so high without becoming unsustainable. Occassional relief is necessary so that outcome remains in doubt, so that hope of a favorable outcome is not outweighed by certainty of failure. A protagonist wandering about exploring the countryside prospecting for answers must find minor answers that build up to answering the central question a dramatic complication poses; otherwise, it's a travelogue, an anecdote, a vignette without plot progress.

I think I could go up to three or so chapters with a protagonist not answering a minor suspense question satisfactorily, but no is itself an answer. Will they or won't they is amatory romance's central suspense question. Three refusals is a good number. "What I tell you three times is true." Aristotle Poetics. The value of three rising action scene chapters revealed and after a major turn, a reversal, in a tragic crisis, three falling action scene chapters. Less than three is open to question efforts were truly exhausted. More than three becomes episodic. In three major scenes, the protagonist has given all the best efforts to win a love interest and failed. The tragic crisis is the discovery, realization all is lost, which is the major middle turn. Though there should be a clue, perhaps a foreshadowed hint that a slim hope remains. The major opening turn is perhaps a stranger comes to town or a native goes to a strange town, the love interest is discovered.

The amatory romance convention is they will hook up in the ending; otherwise, readers feel disappointment rather than satisfaction. All is lost in the middle. Wait. There's a renewed spark of hope. The love interest is following a logical decision, but the heart will not be denied. Getting there in falling action scenes artfully delays the protagonist winning over the love interest. The protagonist discovers the love interest's true sentiment. All is known. Then it's only a matter of eroding resistance. Formulaic, I know. That's the convention of convention-driven genres.

Other genres' artfully posed suspense questions;
Mystery, who done it.
Psychological or Spy Thriller, will the mundane terror be stopped. (Mundane meaning earthly as opposed to metaphysical or supernatural, not boring.)
Western, will the rogue hero put an end to the villain.
Horror, will the supernatural or metaphysical terror be stopped.
Fantasy, will the hero or heroine achieve the goal.
Science fiction, incorporates a gamut of the above based on fantastical technological, scientific, and/or social situations.
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby arbraun » 04 Sep 2010, 20:46

I tend to put the chapters and scene breaks in as I write the novel, usually when the POV changes or when a scene feels done. I'm learning not to go so long on chapters as it's hard on the reader, but I have an innate sense of where to stop the scene, as in a cliffhanger.
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby Vandersun » 07 Sep 2010, 02:31

Take Shakespeare, for example.

When I think of creating chapters for a book, it helps me to think of each chapter as the scene of a play (or a movie if you prefer). I'm very visual that way, so if you think of a scene of dialogue or action or whatever it is you want to happen in that moment--that glimpse of the character's life that you're sharing with the reader--as happening in the middle of a stage, it might help to think of what would be the best time to shoo your hero/heroine or villain off the stage to make room for the next glimpse, the next intriguing part of the story.

Only instead of [Romeo exeunt Left] it's really the author--and with them the reader--that's actually leaving the stage to go look at something new. They can run off stage, get thrown off stage, stand in the middle and summarize what they learned and then leave of their own free will, or heck, you could even just turn off the lights mid-scene and leave them in the dark for a few seconds. It's really up to you as to what tone you want to set.

PS - I apologize if I've taken the analogy too far, I just love me some analogies.
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby J. T. SHEA » 13 Sep 2010, 18:07

Each of the three books of my series has about sixty chapters, averaging a little over a thousand words each, all named and numbered and listed in several contents pages. So I do break some scenes into more than one chapter. My placing of the chapter breaks is a combination of planning, intuition, and re-editing, but I always seek a natural pause in action or speech or tone. Or a cliffhanger.

Since I also write short paragraphs, much white space results, which I find easy on the eyes. James Patterson and his co-writers have popularized such an approach in recent times, but I got the idea from the books of the late Arthur C. Clarke.

My chapter titles comment, sometimes ironically, on what happens in each chapter, and the contents pages have the extra benefit of giving me a good guide to where I put things. Oddly, I found it easier to come up with 180 or so chapters titles than three titles for the three books!
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Re: How do you know when to end a chapter and start a new?

Postby Nathan Bransford » 15 Sep 2010, 21:32

I actually would go a step further and encourage people to think of a chapter as a cohesive whole, rather than simply coming up with breaks after the fact. I think of chapters as a microcosm of the novel - they have a beginning, middle, and end, and the character ends in a place that's different from where they began (either physically or emotionally or both). Even when a chapter is comprised of multiple scenes, there is a progression, a building, and a climax to the chapter, and a natural break comes when the arc of the chapter is complete.
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