Legit Mini Lesson #1

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. 

Chapter Structure

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. 

theoremofwhat  asked:

Would you say that each chapter is a scene with one large event in it, or that a chapter has multiple little scenes that lead into something larger? Does this question make sense? I'm struggling with this...

A chapter is a section of a book that contains multiple scenes that form a coherent narrative arc. A scene is a single event, or closely related series of events that lead directly from one to the next, which forms a coherent narrative arc. Scenes can transition by a break in the text, or by a transitional phrase.

Let’s use an example. I think most people can access the first Harry potter book pretty easily, so we’ll use that.

Chapter One of the Philosopher’s stone covers the Dursley’s home life before Harry is dropped off, through to the discovery of Harry on the door step by Aunt Petunia. There are multiple scenes within the chapter, though there are no breaks in the text (a break is signified by a white space between two paragraphs.)

Chapter One is 12 pages long, and it has no text breaks, but we’ll look through the first few scenes together to see how they flow from one to the next.

The first scene of the first chapter introduces the Dursleys and their home dynamic, as well as establishing their mundane life and suggesting the extraordinary events that are going to follow. I’d place the end of scene one as when Uncle Vernon gets in his car and leaves the drive.

Scene two follows on directly, a little way down the road he sees ‘a cat reading a map’. He also notices other odd things in the streets as he heads in to work, but when he arrives there, there’s another scene change as he pulls into the car park.

Uncle Vernon sits with his back to the window, so the third scene is his ‘perfectly ordinary day’, which is then interrupted by his overhearing a discussion of the Potters in the street.

So those are the first three scenes in the chapter. Let’s have a look at the transitional phrases that move us from one scene to the next. You’ll notice that these scenes are very short, and don’t contain much description – this chapter utilises a storybook style to set up the mood of the narrative, giving us a jaunty depiction of people who don’t want to be seen as weird. You could even think of this first chapter as being ‘telling, not showing’, which is a stylistic choice.

The phrase that the first scene ends on is “He got into his car and backed out of number four’s drive.” And this is the last line of the paragraph. The next paragraph picks up some way down the road “It was on the corner of the street that he noticed the first sign of something peculiar …” Between these two phrases, we have the information that Vernon has left home and driven some distance before the events of the second scene begin.

This second scene takes up two paragraphs and details his trip to work, and seeing the odd things happening, it ends with “The traffic moved on and a few minutes later, Mr Dursley arrived in the Grunnings car park, his mind back on drills.” And the next paragraph begins the next scene with “Mr Dursley always sat with his back to the window in his office on the ninth floor.”

There’s a sequence occurring here, the scenes are separated by a shift in physical setting, character action, and time. Time progresses, the character moves through the town, and he goes from one activity to another (morning with the family, driving to work, sitting in the office).

It might be helpful to go through the rest of the chapter yourself and see if you can figure out where the rest of the scenes fit, and how they move from one to another. You can also look at how each scene is composed – the first one, for example, contains the initial lead-in discussing how ordinary and normal the Dursleys are, and then closes in on their morning routine – If you don’t have this book to hand, you could try it with a chapter of a book you do have.

Of course, different authors have different styles, some will have longer chapters and some shorter. Some will prefer transitional phrases like what we’ve looked at above, and some will use text breaks to shift from one scene to the next. In Chapter Three of the Philosopher’s Stone, there’s an example of a text break between scenes, so we might as well look at that while we’re here.

This is on page 33 of the book.

So Harry goes to bed in the evening, with ‘a plan’, and then the next morning with the alarm ringing the next scene begins. If it were a transition phrase between the two scenes, you might have had something like: 

… He had a plan. 
          Harry set his alarm and when it rang at six o’clock the next morning he turned it off quickly and dressed silently.

The transition phrase creates continuity and flow between one scene and the next, but it isn’t always necessary. The advantage of the text break is that it gives a sense of urgency to the transition between two scenes, and it can be a lot neater. It can eliminate unnecessary detail and action which could bog down the narrative and make the reader lose interest. 

We don’t need to read about Harry cleaning his teeth and going to bed, setting the alarm, sleeping through the night. All we need to know is that he has a plan, and then wakes up early to carry it out.

It might give you a better idea of how things fit together if you take a few different books and just read through the first chapter of each one, taking note of how the chapter is divided into discrete scenes. 

  • Does the author favour text breaks or transitions?
  • How many scenes do you think there are in each first chapter?
  • How long is the first chapter of each book you choose?
  • How long, generally, are the scenes that form the chapter?

Reading a lot of different books with an eye to taking note of the structural elements and how they work to give the piece tone, atmosphere, tension, traction, etc is the best way to get a handle on how to construct a story yourself.