The Nuts and Bolts of Chapters (A DisCon III Panel)

In December of 2021, I had the opportunity to attend DisConIII. Here are my other DisCon posts.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Ada Palmer, Aparna Verma, Elle E. Ire, Nancy Kress, and Patricia A. Jackson, with Delia Sherman as moderator.

The panel description was as follows:

Do you even need chapters? How long should they be? Should you title your chapters or just number them? Where do you break a chapter, and how do you write a good cliffhanger? How do you write chapters with multiple character points of view? So much to discuss for such a small topic!

While the panelists didn’t address all of these, they shared some valuable tips.

What Do Chapters Do For a Novel?

Chapters are all about pacing and managing tension.

  1. They can help prevent reader fatigue
  2. They can lead into the next chapter
  3. They can let you switch something up — point of view, time, place

Or, all of the above.

What Does a Chapter Need To Do?

While some writers see each chapter as its own short story, the best chapters typically give closure to one plot point — be it external goals or emotional growth — while setting up the anticipation for the next plot point.

The Two Types of Chapters or Scenes

First, let’s take a moment to recognize that scenes are different than chapters. They are a single point-of-view of action, taken forward. Each chapter can hold multiple scenes, or a scene could be broken amongst multiple chapters.

There are two main types of chapters or scenes.

  1. Dramatized – these are your action scenes, your dialogue scenes, basically, things you would find in a script or video format.
  2. Expository – these are your character’s internal monologue, the lyrically descriptive set-ups, the history info dump, or even flashbacks — because they aren’t moving the character forward — at least not, externally. But, these quiet moments are crucial.

The order of these chapters or scenes matters. Nancy Kress gave us her ‘Kress Swimming Pool Rules’. You have to kick-off from the side of the pool with dramatization scenes before you can earn the quiet ones: conflict, and then ruminate.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but they require high levels of skill with prose and work best in more literary science-fiction than commercial.

Managing Tension

As mentioned earlier, managing tension is one of the key roles of chapter breaks. As a story goes on, tension typically ramps up — but if tension is always ramping up, soon it becomes invisible, like the supposed frog in the pot. Breaks in tension make its heightening that much stronger.

Shorter chapters are punchier and can ramp up the pacing, but overuse can take away the effect. Try to relegate short chapters to when something powerful happens in your story.

If a scene doesn’t work where it is — because of breaking tension or leaving it too high, see if you can shift around the scene. Try moving plot beats, or even exposition.

Patty Jackson quoted Nancy Springer: to solve the muddle in the middle issue, look for new beginnings and focus on them.

How Can You Learn This Stuff?

  • Using beat sheets — and seeing if a 3-act, 4-act, or 5-act structure works better for your story.
  • Some pantsers (people who don’t plan and write ‘by the seat of their pants’) find writing chronologically can help.
  • You can break a book you’ve read down by chapter and see what items happen in what chapters — at the high level — not in such a way that you’re stealing the plot. ie. In chapter one, the main character is introduced, given a hobby to humanize them, the initial conflict is hinted at, and the love interest is seen.
  • You can read a book you know reasonably well, chapter-by-chapter, in reverse order, to see how they set up the things to come in the chapter you just read.

All in all, some very handy tips and tricks that I will be thinking about for a long time.

Are there any tips the panelists missed?


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