Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Chapters and Sections

First let me say, I haven't had any takers so far on the free ebook giveaway!  Maybe I made it too complicated this time, with the Google form, but I really was just trying to accommodate the people who didn't want to leave their e-mail addresses in a blog post.  Oh, well, live and learn!

As requested, I’m going to talk today about how I handle chapters, and the rules I follow for section breaks and organization.  And as always, bear in mind that this is just how I do it, and I’m most definitely not an expert!

Handling chapters and organization in your writing can be kind of overwhelming the first time out.  It can be hard to know when and where to put a chapter break, or to end a section and move to a new scene.  I know I had a lot of trouble with that when I was younger and trying to write a novel, and didn’t really get a handle on it until I was writing The Door to Canellin.

Scenes and sections are relatively easy, if you follow the basic rules of writing, and especially if you have an outline of how you plan to map out the chapters.  My general rule is, when a scene ends, there’s a section break.  It keeps your scenes from running together.  Think of it like a movie; when the scene ends, you fade to black and a new scene begins.  That’s how I use my section breaks.

There’s another writing rule that can help you with your section breaks, and that is the point of view rule.  POV is very important.  In general, you never switch to another character’s POV within a scene.  In other words, if you start out the scene with the narrator telling us the inner thoughts of Character X, and we’re seeing things that Character X would see, you can’t tell us what Character Y is thinking or seeing or feeling.  You can show us Character Y’s reactions, as viewed by Character X, but you can’t get in Y’s head.  As with any rule of writing, this can and has been broken effectively by authors, but it takes a master’s touch to do it well.  Stephen King does it on occasion.  I do my best not to, simply because I don’t feel I have that master’s touch.

So if you’re following the POV rule, and you need to see through a different POV character’s eyes, then it’s time for a section break, even if it’s only for a couple of paragraphs. 

Section breaks are also useful for dramatic effect.  You build and build to a climax in the scene, and then end the scene at a dramatic, cliffhanger moment.  Then you can either move onto a new scene in a new location, or continue that scene from a different POV, or any number of variations.  Often times I find it effective to continue the scene from a new POV, backtracking just slightly in order to build briefly from the new POV.  Here’s an example from The Door to Canellin of what I’m talking about.

“Seems the beasts found somethin’ else ta’ occupy ‘em,” he said.  “There was some shoutin’ below, an’ then sounds o’ steel on steel.  Looks like they run inta’ the fellows what was chasin’ us.”
“Then let’s get out of here while they’re occupied,” said Luther, turning his horse back upslope, and the others moved to follow.  Wes held back, looking down the passage worriedly.
“Wes, come on,” said Ryan urgently.  “We’ve got to get out of here!”
“They’ll be slaughtered, Dad,” said Wes.  “Chasing us or not, they’re people, and they’re fighting monsters.  We have to help them.”  He turned and spurred his horse quickly down the sloping passage.
“Get back here, you little fool!” hissed Luther, trying to keep his voice low.  Wes ignored him, and Gideon was already moving to follow.
“He’s right, Luther,” said Ryan reluctantly.  “What kind of people are we if we don’t help?”
“The kind with a pulse!” said Luther, but Ryan was already leaping his mount after his son’s, and Elarie was close on his heels.
“Blasted fools, one and all,” said Luther.
“Shame on you, Father,” said Jiane, working her mount past Luther’s to get room to follow Ryan down the slope.
“Button it, girl,” Luther growled.  “I’m not about to let them go without me.”  And Luther, Jiane, and Anton heeled their mounts down the slope after their comrades.
Joachim reined in his stallion as he called a halt, cocking his head to one side to listen. 
“What is it, my lord?” Jared asked, and Joachim held his hand up for silence.
“Listen,” he said softly, and the others strained their ears.  In the distance far ahead came the clank of metal on stone and the sounds of heavy footsteps.  “There!” whispered Joachim.  “They’re coming closer!  I don’t know why, but our quarry seems to have changed direction.”  He motioned to the three guardsmen in the lead to ride on.  “Proceed slowly and with caution,” he advised.  “If we come upon them unprepared, we can take them in the darkness.”  He followed, and Jared took up a position at the rear.
They crept their mounts forward slowly, keeping their eyes and ears alert as the sounds of clanking armor and booted feet grew louder.  They had traveled only a few minutes when the men on point rounded a bend and let out shouts of alarm.
“Dragonmen, milord, approaching from above!  Twenty or more!”  Joachim halted his mount, holding up a hand to halt Jared as well.  After a moment, he and Jared continued on slowly around the bend.  When his men came into sight, he could see the steel of their bared blades in the moonlight that filtered down from above.  Several hundred paces up the pass was a party of dragonmen, snarling with bloodlust as they fought to be the first to reach the men below.

As far as organizing my chapters, that takes a little more effort.  How many scenes go into a chapter?  How long should your chapters be?  Where and how should a chapter end?  Without my outlines, I wouldn’t have a clue.  That’s why I always tell people who ask that if they don’t use outlines, they should give it a try once.  It’s not for everyone, but for me, it works.  With my outlines, I basically describe what is going to happen in a chapter.  Imagine you’ve just read a book, and need to tell someone what happened in chapter eleven.  That’s the impression you’d get from my outlines.  As far as where the chapter breaks go, that can be tough even in outline form, especially when you’ve got a chapter with several scenes happening in different locations, with different characters, that seemingly don’t relate.  In those cases, I try to strive for an average uniformity to chapter length, as well as just a general feel for when it’s time to have a new chapter.  A chapter should focus on one or two major events.  Once you’ve covered those events, it’s time to move to the next chapter.  If your chapter is overly long, you might want to consider splitting an event or scene out into the next chapter.  If it’s too short, you might consider whether the events you’ve depicted are really “major” enough.  But in the end, there’s nothing wrong with a short chapter, provided it does what it needs to do.  My chapter lengths in The Door to Canellin vary widely in length.

And that’s about it!  If anyone finds these kinds of posts interesting or helpful, please let me know!  I always feel like I’m lecturing or teaching when I post these kinds of things, tasks for which I consider myself completely unqualified.  But it is nice to examine my own writing methods every once in a while.  Sometimes in the examination, I realize things about my writing that even I didn’t necessarily know!


  1. Great post. I had been looking forward to it, and I'm not disappointed in the least.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I'm late to the giveaway part, but no matter.

    I'm a writer too and I tend to limit my scenes to the point of view of the character I'm dealing with.

    Also, I don't do detailed outlines, but I'm a believer. It makes life so much easier when it's time to edit.

  3. Thanks, Ryne, glad you enjoyed!

    J.L. Campbell, I've extended the deadline to 11:59pm tonight, CST. If you still want a freebie, click on the "Giveaway Signup" link at the top right hand side of this page and fill in your info! Also, if you'd like to enter for the paperback giveaway, you can enter here: http://oktopusink.blogspot.com
    or here: