Saturday, 7 November 2015

Chapter or Scene Break? How and When to Use Them - Part 2

In Part 1 we looked at scene breaks, why they’re used and how to use them, so in this concluding part we’ll look chapters – when to use them and how effective to make them.

While scene breaks literally allow a scene to break for a different POV or a flashback or to move forward through the story, a chapter signifies a completely new section of the story.

But when exactly do you begin a new chapter? How do you introduce one without completely interrupting the flow of the story?

Why start a new chapter?

We use chapters to represent a new segment of the story, yet they must be a continuation of that story, otherwise readers will not be able to follow the story cohesively. And just like scene breaks, they can show a change of character viewpoint, they can signify a passing of time and they can be used for flashbacks.  

They are also useful for reducing the size of any given chapter, since if you are using chapters, you will want to vary the length of each chapter to keep things interesting for the reader.

Another reason for a new chapter is for dramatic effect – a way of taking advantage of a crucial moment by deliberately breaking the flow of the story and creating, in basic terms, a ‘cliffhanger’.

Lastly, we use chapters in order to provide readers with the chance to breath between the action, to let them rest, so they can put the book down and return to it again when they’re ready.

When to start a new chapter

If you are unsure when to start a new chapter, first ask the following questions:

1. Do I need to change the point of view to another character? Does the perspective need to change?
2. Is the current chapter a little too long and needs to be separated into a new chapter.
3. Do I want to create a dramatic pause – a ‘cliffhanger’?
4. Do I need to move ahead in time by hours or days?
5. Do I need to use a flashback?

Just as with scene breaks, if writing in third person multiple POV, you will need to change the character viewpoint at some point so that you give different perspectives to your story. This may mean starting a new chapter with a different character’s POV. This is used frequently in novels, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t detract the reader.

The other thing to watch is to ensure your current chapter doesn’t go on for too long. It’s easy to forget to start a new chapter and you simply keep writing until you have a chapter that is three times the length that it should reasonably be. Then you realise it’s too long and probably quite a lot for the reader to take in.

There are no rules on chapter lengths, but it’s about balance and variation. Keep chapter lengths varied so that readers remain interested and enthralled by the story and they don’t become bored.

Chapters are very useful for creating a dramatic pause, too, or what is commonly known as the cliffhanger.  In other words, you end the chapter during a crucial moment – perhaps the hero is in imminent danger, perhaps a bomb has seconds to go off or maybe the hero is cornered with no escape…these kinds of things leave your reader hanging in the air for a very brief moment, desperate to find out what happens next, for example:

Peter raced to the edge, saw David clinging to the wall, his knuckles white, his face contorted with panic.

David’s voice pitched as his grip diminished. ‘Help me!’

Peter stared at David, the anger flooding back. He reached out, but then hesitated. He slowly withdrew.

New Chapter

Guilt forged a path through peter’s senses and he quickly reached down, grabbed David’s collar, unable to let him die, despite his feelings. How else would David face justice?

This is a simple example that shows how a dramatic pause in the narrative helps to keep the reader guessing, to wonder what might happen next, too keep them turning the page.

Chapters are good for shifting forward in time by hours, days or even weeks, as long as the transition is seamless and is hinted in the previous chapter. We do this so that the reader is prepared and the narrative doesn’t appear jarring for them, for example:

Peter peered at the receipts he’d found in the drawer of David’s central London office. Like a trail of footprints in the snow, they pointed to the one place he knew David would flee, just like the coward he was.

New Chapter


Peter pushed his way through the throng milling around outside La Guardia Airport and flagged down the river of yellow taxi cabs passing the entrance…

This example shows how time has moved forward considerably by showing Peter already at his destination in New York, which means it does away with the need to provide boring description and exposition. Instead we’re transported right to where the story needs to continue, without jarring the reader.

The other reason for new chapters is the use of Flashbacks. Not only do they work well within scene breaks, but they also work as new chapters. This gives the reader a clear signal that the new chapter is taking place in the past and it clearly separates it from the present day narrative. The next chapter can then return to the present action.

In the end, chapters are only as effective as you want them to be.

Remember that chapters should occur each time there is a major shift in the story, whether that is a new character POV, a flashback, the need to move forward, to create a dramatic pause and a shift in the story or simply to avoid an overly long chapter.

Next week: How to write effective description.


4 comments:

  1. This really helped, but I do have one question. Is it ok to start a new chapter in the middle of a flash back?

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  2. Hi there. There is no reason why you can't - there are no hard and fast rules. Just make sure that it's clear to the reader that it's a flashback, otherwise you can cause confusion. Always aim for clarity, even if you start in the middle of a flashback!

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