Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How to Break Your Book into Chapters

The act of telling a story, though initiated and performed by the story teller, is actually a collaborative act between the teller of the story and the audience. The implications of the collaborative nature of storytelling is seen in many ways, and one of them is in the way story content is broken up into chapters.

For starters, the human attention span does have limits, and so chapter breaks are handy ways to allow the reader to pause if he wants to step away from the story with a temporary sense of completion. While it might seem inconsequential, it is actually vitally important for maintaining reader interest over the long haul of a novel. So there is a practical element to having chapter breaks.

How you organize the elements of the story into those breaks is actually a creative decision. Some stories are told with chapter breaks every couple of pages (or even more frequently). This constantly repeating use of breaks actually contributes (or detracts if mishandled) from the overarching story or message of the book itself. Frequent chapter breaks can connote a sense of panic, or lack of attention, or any number of things.

Conversely, long chapters with infrequent breaks can connote a sense of slowness or preference for the methodical, and this will be successful if it makes sense within the context of the story being told.

Many times, chapter breaks occur naturally around known life events, such as the end of a wedding party, or at a graveyard after the casket is lowered, or in the hospital after a baby is handed to her mother. Other times chapter breaks are intentionally inserted in the middle of the action, and lead to other chapters that are picking up after an abrupt ending.

Again, breaking your content into chapters should be done on the basis of alignment with the overall tone of the story and used as a pacing mechanism.


  1. Interesting post. I usually end my chapters when they're done. Because I write in scenes, when the scene is done, the chapter ends. Also, because I write mysteries, I try to end the chapter with a bit of a cliffhanger.

    good blog.


  2. Great reminder. I will try and keep this in mind as I keep working on my book. I enjoy looking at the psychology of writing and reading, and your right that the human mind does have a short attention span. Thanks for this!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  3. This was a very usefull post, as I am an author who uses chapter breaks. I use it to identify the end of a specific scene or something like that between two characters. My story is very complex that chapter breaks are often demanded for the sense of the completion of a particular scene.

  4. This is great... I wrote my entire book without breaks (other than a 'double space' if the scene was changing).  Now I'm going back through the 350 pages, adding in chapters and naming them.  It's rather hard, ideally with my next book I'll put in the chapter breaks as I'm writing.
    I really liked this post, thanks!

  5. I like this post, it shows different styles for creating a break for the reader.

    I have combination type of style. I write in chapters and depending on the books these range from 9 pages to 30 pages.

    Within each chapter are several scenes. Usually between 2 - 4, once again depending on the story.

    I write until the scene ends and then continue on.

  6. I like writing cliffhanger endings for my YA novel chapters. This sometimes causes irregular chapter lengths. Do you think it's better to create roughly uniform chapters, or to end a chapter on a high note, even if it will be only a couple of pages long?

  7. Heather,

    In fiction, as long as your chapter breaks make sense to the reader, uniformity isn't a major issue. A developmental editor can help point out any issues.


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