CHAPTER 8: Chapters

CHAPTER 8: Chapters

A novel is a structure of structures.44 At the beginning of this book, we started with the broadest overall structure, the Premise, progressed through the more detailed Novel Diagram with its plot points and reversal, and now we break down the diagram into its component parts: chapters. Before directors start to make a movie, they storyboard, i.e., lay out all the important scenes in hand-drawn pictures. The comparable step for the novelsmith is to provide a one paragraph summary for each chapter. This gives the author an opportunity to establish pace and ensure a logical scene sequence.

To return to the analogy of a novel as a house, a house has walls that function structurally but also divide the home into functional rooms where the people live: bedrooms, kitchen, living room, etc. Just as houses have rooms, novels have chapters within which characters act out their lives. And just as each room in a house has a specific purpose, each chapter has its own agenda. Certain things must happen in the first chapter: specifically it must lock the central conflict. A later chapter will dramatize the First Plot Point, etc.

In creating chapter summaries, the author has the first opportunity to use his selected narrative voice and tense. The summaries can be written without doing this, but if you do, they’ll help ensure that you don’t deviate from the POV. All character introductions, plot and subplot events must be put in sequence. Here, the novelsmith must orchestrate the story elements, a role that will become more complex as work on the novel proceeds.


Chapters are also about reader breathing space. The reader experiences a sort of claustrophobia if the narrative is one long, uninterrupted stream of discourse. A break from time to time prevents a tiring, perhaps even confusing, reading experience. Reading a novel might be compared to eating an elephant. The end of a chapter gives the reader time to swallow. Similarly, the reader must be given the narrative in bite-sized chunks, so that he can ingest what has just happened and assimilate the profound event that has just occurred. You don’t eat an elephant in one sitting. Even though the reader may dig into the next chapter without a break, he has been allowed an emotional break. Chapter length can vary considerably but will generally average ten to fifteen pages. The size of the chapter should fit the subject matter. Don’t think the short attention span of the modern American reader resulted in the short chapter. Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, which was first published in 1851, wrote a lot of three-page chapters.


Chapters are about more than enabling a few deep breaths. A long story has its ebbs and flows, its milestones. The elements within a chapter have a tighter relationship than they do with the rest of the novel, and are put together so they constitute a rounded whole. Chapters can also mark different scenes, times and places within the narrative, or possibly a change of subject matter. Each chapter must complete a significant event in the storyline and also reveal more about the central conflict and characters.


Logic and cause-and-effect determine chapter sequence. Sometimes the author will skip around in a story, but as a rule stories should have a linear storyline, with events proceeding in what would simulate real life. Not all chapters are created equal or in the same image. Some are used for setting up the story, others for developing conflict and character. Some will carry greater emotional impact and others have a more intellectual bent. The place to start when determining which chapters are absolutely indispensable is the Novel Diagram presented in Chapter 2. Each milestone in the diagram will have at least one chapter devoted to it. Also, the milestones from the character arc diagrams may dictate more chapters. Use storyline progression to determine if you need less or more, combining some, dividing others. Figure 10 shows a possible compilation of chapters for a hypothetical novel.

These days, publishers don’t much appreciate novels exceeding 300 pages due to editing time and printing costs. Agents are also reluctant to represent novels, particularly from unpublished authors, greater than this length. A chapter should not exceed approximately fifteen pages; therefore, according to these ground rules, a novel will have approximately twenty chapters. Adhering to these arbitrary restrictions may be difficult for the author to accept. For one’s first novel, you would be well advised to conform.

Don’t take these restrictions as absolute. Make sure what you decide about chapters fits your material and your perception of your novel. Remember that all suggestions here are intended to remove some of the mystery of novel construction and are not intended to be strictly followed.


Figure 10


First of all, a chapter is not a short story, regardless of how many excerpts you’ve seen published in short story journals. A chapter is generally so connected and completed by the rest of the novel, that rarely can it stand alone. Because each chapter is uniquely placed and fulfills a specific part of the overall storyline, each will have its own structural requirements. Yet, they do have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

As shown in Figure 11 below, each individual chapter will have a central point that must relate to the overall progression of the storyline. The scene that includes the central point in the chapter should probably be dramatized. The rest may be presented in narrative summary. Each chapter also has thematic (Premise) requirements placed on it, and this gives it a philosophical quality. The end of the first chapter contains the fire that continues to burn in the next chapter.

Figure 11

The vertical axis in this diagram is intended to show dramatic tension. Note that it builds to a maximum and then tails off but does not go to zero. Chapters are also like a relay race, as shown in Figure 12. A chapter takes the storyline, advances it a little and passes it off to the next chapter. The storyline is the baton.

Chapters – Escalating Tension

Figure 12

Each chapter accepts a certain amount of tension from the previous chapter but carries with it its own tension-building devices. A chapter shouldn’t let the tension drop to zero, not even at the end where the basic point of the chapter is concluded. Chapters themselves do have many of the characteristics of a complete story, but the completeness comes more from having satisfied Premise needs at that point rather than storyline progression.


The first chapter may well be devoted to locking the central conflict. For a complex story, the author may need one chapter to lock the “background” conflict and another to set up the conflict between characters. In Titanic, the background conflict (“Even God couldn’t sink the Titanic.”) is set up separately from Rose’s conflict with her mother and fiancé over getting married. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck uses a four-page first chapter to describe how the weather ushered in the dust bowl of the 1930’s, establishing a sort of cosmic conflict between man and God. He introduced his characters in chapter two.

Many times, however, the first chapter is used to present the narrator and characters to the reader. In Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, he uses an elaborate scheme in which, as the author, he supposedly receives a woman’s journal from her grown children. The author then claims he has pieced together the story from his own research and her journal describing her adultery. Of course, the work is a complete fabrication.

Sometimes, the author will accomplish all the setup in the first chapter. In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, he uses the first few pages to let the first-person narrator (Nick) introduce himself and the “hero” of the story (Gatsby). Before the chapter is through, the central conflict is established and all the characters brought into the story. Fitzgerald didn’t have any time to waste. Gatsby (his masterpiece) was hardly more than 120 pages.


A novel always forms something of a circle. It starts by locking the central conflict, then puts the finishing touches on that same conflict by resolving it at the end. Thus, the ending is intimately tied to the beginning. The author should ensure that all the expectations created in the beginning have been fulfilled. Once the main conflict has been resolved, the author should end the novel as quickly as possible, although American readers do tend to want all the ramifications spelled out. If the author ever has a place to attempt eloquence, this is it. He has the entire weight of the novel behind him.

A word of caution: avoid moralizing. In particular, do not reveal your Premise. Stick to the story, the mood cast by the aftermath of the resolution, and avoid summing it all up. The most skillful novelsmith will leave the moral implications of the story ambiguous. The action will have a definite resolution, the protagonist will either win or lose, but the premise will still linger, shrouded in the mist of events.

Ron Hansen has authored one of the most beautiful novels of recent years, Mariette in Ecstasy, which has been mentioned before. It is set at the turn of the century. His heroine originally entered a convent to become a nun, was evicted for experiencing, or possibly faking, the stigmata of Christ, and generally became an outcast. He uses a particularly deft touch to end the novel [Mariette is speaking in a letter to a friend]:

And Christ still sends me roses. We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, Surprise me.45

Throughout the novel, Hansen has walked a thin line regarding whether the woman is a fake, but his character stays true to herself to the end, and the question concerning the nature of passionate faith remains unanswered.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath ends on one of the strangest notes of any novel. For almost 600 pages, his characters have been driven by nature’s dust storms, baked by sun in their trip across the Mojave Desert, and drenched by California rain. As the novel comes to an end, they are trapped by floodwaters in an abandoned barn. They find a man starving to death, but they have no food. The only nourishment they have is in a woman’s breasts. She has just given birth to a stillborn child. The following is the novel’s last paragraph:

For a minute Rose of Sharon [the mother of the dead child] sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face [of the starving man], into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.46

It is as if God has made the men into children, and the young mother’s mysterious smile appears to be that of Mona Lisa in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, which has been the subject of so much reflection through the centuries. This startling ending causes the reader to rethink the entire novel.


The first thing an author should do at the beginning of each chapter is to ground the reader in the fictional world. Work the senses. If you can hit all five in the first paragraph, you’ll have your reader hooked for the entire chapter. Remember Ray Bradbury’s paragraph about sensing time. Ground the reader in the unreal and establish a sense of place by choosing details that provoke emotion. Setting is environment. The author can create some of his most powerful effects by selecting the setting to augment the plotline and/or the emotional landscape inside a character. Here is Hemingway’s opening to A Farewell to Arms:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.47

By the use of natural symbolism, Hemingway’s narrative gains the force of a parable while spreading an atmosphere of disillusionment. All settings are exotic if they connote Premise through description, and Hemingway does this beautifully. This is narrative summary and provides the setting, but it does not constitute a scene. Four pages later, Hemingway provides his first scene:

The priest was young and blushed easily and wore a uniform like the rest of us but with a cross in dark red velvet above the left breast pocket of his gray tunic. The captain spoke pidgin Italian for my doubtful benefit, in order that I might understand perfectly, that nothing should be lost.

“Priest to-day with girls,” the captain said looking at the priest and at me. The priest smiled and blushed and shook his head. This captain bated him often.

“Not true?” asked the captain. “To-day I see priest with girls.”

“No.,” said the priest. The other officers were amused at the bating.48

As illustrated by these paragraphs, setting describes where and when the action takes place, whereas scene describes the action. Setting may also be a metaphor for character. Since a person’s home is an extension of himself, a description of the home can be a description of the person. Fitzgerald’s narrator tells us that Gatsby’s home:

…was a colossal affair by any standard—it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion…49

The central point of course is that Gatsby’s home is an “imitation” and highly pretentious. A little later at a party set inside, we learn something a little more pointed about Gatsby, who claims to be an Oxford graduate, when the narrator meets a man observing Gatsby’s library:

A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.

“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
“About what?”
He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“The books?”
He nodded.

“Absolutely real—have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and—Here! Lemme show you.”

Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”

“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”

He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf, muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.50

We then know that, although Gatsby has a large library, the books have never been read. (In those days, the edges of the pages had to be cut by hand before reading.) And in particular, the man tells us that Gatsby’s life is very fragile. The narrator could have told us Gatsby was pretentious, but that wouldn’t have had the impact of showing us the reality behind the façade. This also foreshadows the ending. Gatsby’s nature dictates the outcome. As the story progresses, it becomes a mystery that the reader must solve. Gradually, the reader comes to realize that nothing in The Great Gatsby is quite what it seems, and that Fitzgerald is saying something subtle that goes beyond Gatsby, possibly something about the American Dream and the shallowness that can lie beneath a glossy surface. In the end, Gatsby’s life does come tumbling down, all the subtle foreshadowing reaching fruition.

Setting may also be a reflection of internal landscape, of a character’s state of mind, concerns, mood. A young, single woman with a high-paying job modeling for a prestigious agency in New York might experience the city noise as exciting, feel its energy and recognize its endless possibilities. On the other hand, a young, unemployed woman whose husband has just left her with two kids in diapers might hear the screech of tires and blasting horns as a menace, the shouts and sirens as threatening. It’s all a matter of perspective, and the reader, whether the narrative is first person or third person limited, will be affected by the character through whose eyes he sees the fictional world.

Consider this passage by Chang-Rae Lee from his novel Native Speaker. The first-person narrator is expressing concern for his son’s safety in New York City:

The city, of course, seemed too dangerous. Especially during the summer, the streets so dog mad with heat, untempered, literally steaming with possibilities, none of them good. People got meaner, stuck beneath all that hard light and stone. They worked through it by talking, speaking, shouting and screaming, in every language on earth. And the cursing: in New York City, summer is the season of bad language. It shouts at you from propped-up windows, it hangs on gold chains out of cars, it lingers at phone booths, peep booths, in every standing line for movies and museums and methadone.

And then there were the heat waves, the crime waves. The clouds of soot and dust. In the evening it all descended unseen, an invisible ash of distant fire, soiling us everywhere.

No escape.51

At this point, the narrator is still ruminating and grieving over the death of his son. Toward the end of the novel, however, he has reached a certain point of recovery, and it’s reflected in his perception of his environment:

Still I love it here. I love these streets lined with big American sedans and livery cars and vans. I love the early morning storefronts opening up one by one, shopkeepers talking as they crank their awnings down. I love how the Spanish disco thumps out from windows, and how the people propped halfway out still jiggle and dance in the sill and frame. I follow the strolling Saturday families of brightly wrapped Hindus and then the black-clad Hasidim, and step into all the old churches that were once German and then Korean and are now Vietnamese. And I love the brief Queens sunlight at the end of the day, the warm lamp always reaching through the westward tops of that magnificent city.52

This is simply marvelous storytelling and character creation. With this scene, we can tell that Chang-Rae Lee knows his character so well that he can convey, not only his mood, but also how it affects his perception of the world. This setting has been indelibly imprinted with the character’s internal state.

Again, scene differs from setting in that setting has to do with location and time, and scene has to do with a continuous action, e.g., the description of an automobile accident or a robbery. Whether a murder scene confined to an alleyway, a chase scene that circumvents a city or one that orbits an entire planet, each scene will have a setting.

Scene recreates a single incident, is continuous in time, and is action based. In this way, it differs considerably from narrative summary. All the significant events in the novel should occur within scenes. Narration during these events should be kept to a minimum and the story told through action and dialogue. See above excerpt (the second) from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. An author should deal with a scene the way a celebrity attends a party: arrive late, leave early. A chapter may consist of more than one scene, perhaps even a string of them.


When creating a scene, the author should concentrate on processes. The characters have to do something. They have lives, professions, avocations, enjoy outdoor activities, cooking, mowing the lawn, gardening. All these processes become metaphors for character. If two people fall in love in a police station, then the police station better be functioning, cops going about their business, and the reason they fall in love have something to do with the reason they are in the police station to begin with. A good example on TV is ER. The peoples’ lives play out against the excitement of the emergency room, and the actors practice medicine as they would in real life. The processes work thematically so that they reinforce the Premise or expose an element of it along with character.

For another example of processes, consider the following from Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

The fourth tappet is too loose, which is what I had hoped. I adjust it. I check the timing and see that it is still right on and the points are not pitted, so I leave them alone, screw on the valve covers, replace the plugs and start it up.53

Through these processes, the author brings the novel to life. This is where the novelsmith starts to gain credibility in the reader’s eyes. The author must be, or appear to be, an expert in all the processes present in the novel. The reader will sense the author’s confidence, or lack of it, with his material. We’ll talk again about these processes and identify them when we discuss research.


The fire that burns in one chapter will ignite the fire that burns in the next. The beginning of a chapter is a renewal of the story, but it has its genesis in the ending of the previous chapter or at least something left unfinished. Consider the following chapter ending in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

One day as she was tidying a drawer in preparation for her departure, she pricked her finger on something sharp. It was one of the wires of her wedding bouquet. The orange-blossom was yellow with dust, the silver-trimmed satin ribbon frayed at the edges. She tossed it into the fire. It flared up like dry straw. Then it looked like a red bush burning on the embers, slowly disintegrating. She watched it burn. The little cardboard berries popped, the wire twisted, the braid melted away and the shrivelled paper petals hovered like black butterflies at the back of the fire place and finally vanished up the chimney.

When they left Tostes in March, Madame Bovary was pregnant.54

The reader can see the state of Madame Bovary’s marriage in the description of her wedding bouquet burning. This paragraph summarizes the events up to then, gives us an indication that her marriage had failed, and the last sentence, isolated to a paragraph, ignites the fire, the pregnancy, that will burn in the following chapters.


This is also a good time to stand back a little and get an overview of the way a novel is put together. Remember back to the beginning when we defined the Premise, the genetic seed of the novel, in terms of two people, or wills, in conflict. These two, the protagonist and antagonist, are like the warp and woof of an elaborate fabric. They run crossways to each other by virtue of their conflict, just as do the warp and woof. The lives of all the characters and the fictional world of the novel are superimposed as embroidery on this fabric of conflict.

The ancient Greeks used weaving, the union of opposites, as a powerful metaphor. Ancient Greek society was, to a large degree, founded upon it. Plato, in his dialogue The Statesman, provides a long discourse on this subject, and Scheid and Svenbro, in their book The Craft of Zeus, explore the significance of the weaving metaphor to both Athens and Rome.55

Weaving is another of the metaphors the author should carry around as he creates the novel. This is the underlying structure we have been developing. The importance of the author visualizing this cannot be overstressed because the novel is all vision, a mental creation. If no vision of its shape exists, it will have none. This process of visualization can help the author considerably to write a focused, well-balanced dream representing life.

The ancient Greeks also believed that writing was a weaving in itself. The back-and-forth placements of words on the page simulates the shuttle on its course weaving the woof threads among those of the warp. Initially, words ran both ways on the lines, as did a farmer plowing or sowing his field, and of course, as does the weaving shuttle. The Greeks believed that they had learned weaving from the spider. We can now see that setting is intimately connected with character, and character is indelibly etched in Premise, and Premise dictates plot, so that the entire novel is interlinked, and the whole must quiver when any part is touched, like an intricately woven spider web.

The problem is that, and this is what makes writing a novel an adult task, the author is never really sure of the Premise. Try as he might, certainty is rarely a part of the process. Not only that, but each character has a mind of his own and won’t act in quite the way the author expects or wants. The result is that the entire novel is skewed from the author’s original intention. The novel takes on a life of its own, and the author must be willing to let that happen. Frankenstein sent the electricity through the dead flesh he had assembled and screamed, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” only to later realize he’d created a monster he couldn’t control. Just so, the novelsmith bears this same relation to his own work. It will be what it wants to be, and you should let it find its own way in the fictional world.

I’ve included a chapter from Melville’s Moby Dick, Attachment III, to provide you with an example of chapter construction. I’ve identified all the elements, so you can relate them to what you’ve studied here.


After you have created chapter summaries, put each of them in a separate compartment of a loose-leaf, three-ring binder. You’ll have something on the order of twenty sections. This will bring the novel into existence. This work of the imagination will now have an identity and space in the real world. Each chapter has gained a little respect. Once it exists, the novel will seem real and not quite so large or ambiguous. You have made it into a finite entity.

Please don’t brush off this suggestion. Writing a novel is a horrendous, laborious task. The novelsmith must create his book out of thin air. Nothing will make it seem more real, substantial and the task more achievable than will bringing it out of the darkness of the imagination and into the real world.

  1. What to put inside the binder:
  2. References to pertinent material.
  3. Short snippets of narrative or dialogue that come to you during the day or night, or while writing another chapter.
  4. Ideas for chapter construction, setting details.
  5. Interesting words, jargon.
  6. Bits of dialogue.
  7. All research material.

You should keep in mind that it will take you as little as two or as many as ten years to complete the novel. That’s a long time. The amount of material you accumulate on each chapter will be enormous, and a binder will provide a way to organize all of it. Keep all chapter divisions even after you’ve written the chapter because the ideas and research material will continue to accumulate. Now, however, you will also have the text of the chapter itself in which to edit, mark up, and take notes.

Remember that nothing in this structural approach is independent of your own basic idea for the novel. Yours is the metal put into the smithy’s fire. You heat it, beat it into shape using this structure, but the initial impulse and all the material of the novel come from your own idea. The approach provided here is the smithy, the hammer and anvil, and only shapes it.


(a) Provide a detailed chapter list along with a one-sentence statement of the each chapter’s central point. (b) Describe how each chapter advances the storyline and relate it to the overall novel geometry. (c) Provide a list of the major processes to be exploited.