What is a Chapter? - Understanding the Structure and Use of Chapters in Novels
A chapter is more than a more than a random chunk of story. The best way to think of a chapter is as a mini-story within the overall story that you are telling. A chapter is self-contained and events within a chapter tend to be linked in some way. Even if two completely separate events are shown in different scenes, there will always be an implications of those events being connected, either through time or circumstance.
It is important to remember this as a writer because your audience certainly will not forget this fact, and may not appreciate scenes being randomly linked together within a chapter if they are not connected.
So to reiterate - a chapter has it’s own beginning, middle and end, complete with a climax. Your protagonist(s) will have a goal within that chapter, conflicts that they will have to deal with, and some sort of resolution that progresses your reader into the next chapter of your novel.
But of course, it’s not that easy, is it? Not by a long shot. There are a lot of other things to consider, but this is a good starting point for understanding chapters and how to use them in storytelling.
Now that we’re talking about chapters, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of discussing the structure of chapters.
As we already said, chapters are more than just a chunk of story. Chapters are typically made up of several smaller components - otherwise known as “scenes.” How many scenes does a chapter typically need? That’s up to you, the story you’re trying to tell, and a number of other factors.
If you really want a good starting point for chapter structure then 3-5 scenes works well for most writers.
So let’s craft a chapter based on this sort of “structure.” In this chapter, my protagonist has the goal of hunting down a demon that has been terrorizing the city she protects. The plan is for her to meet the demon and to discover that he is actually a fellow vigilante.
Okay, so that’s pretty basic. I need to come up with a lot more for that to function as a full chapter. But you can see that it works as a full chapter, as it does tell a full story. So let’s get into the scenes.
Scene 1 - Protagonist meets with her mentor to discuss the problem of the demon. She notices some odd things about the demon’s behaviors when the mentor discusses him that give her doubt.
Scene 2 - Protagonist is out on patrol and manages to catch sight of the demon. She follows him but quickly loses him.
Scene 3 - Protagonist in her daily life. She is thinking about the demon so much that he is becoming almost an obsession. She ends up discussing him with a friend of hers.
Scene 4 - Protagonist is out on patrol again. While trying to find the demon she ends up in a nasty fight with even worse monsters. The demon ends up saving her life and she realizes that he is a vigilante like herself.
In this structure we have a goal - a conflict/complication - a climax - and a story shift at the end of the chapter. This shift is important as it makes for a chapter that will keep your reader wanting to move on to the next part of the story to see what happens next.
(Any shift in story, whether it’s a change in time, POV, or a dramatic turn of events is a good time to break for a new chapter, FYI.)
Anyway, I have a lot more to say regarding scenes, so I’ll leave this mini lesson off for now.