When I first starting writing longer works the idea of a chapters befuddled me. Whatever I read was used to study how chapters were written and it never ceased to make me wonder how to organize the chapters. I thought it was just what the author had to say in that chapter. That couldn’t be it because my chapters were always chopped due to saying what I had to say.
How does a writer divide up their chapters? That’s what I wanted to know and it didn’t come until after I really got into television shows on Netflix. I’ve talked about the episodial approach before, but I wanted to really paint a picture. I noticed on the shows I watched that there was always a description of the episode that made me want to watch the next episode. I also noticed each one was used to drive the story forward and it had a structure to it. So, I thought: Why don’t I apply that to my writing?
Television shows have a tremendous way of showing writers how to tell a story. In Breaking Bad, you’re essentially rooting for the bad guy, right? The meth dealer is the hero, or antihero. The talented way of making you get to the point of binge watching is how they presented the first episode, or the pilot episode.
In television, the pilot episode is what is shown to networks to see if they’d want to pick it up. If someone were to read the first chapter (episode) of your book (show), would they want to pick it up and continue? That first chapter needs to pull the reader in and give them a reason to root for your protagonist.
Just as the episodes of a show have brief description, do that with your chapters. They can be brief or they can be detailed, depending on what suits you personally. I usually am between where I’ll go brief or detailed, and that depends on if I have an exact plan or idea for that chapter. It might help to have the chapters named, as well. Episodes of a show have a title with them, but this is where you can venture away from that model.
I’ll do titles for my historical military fiction, but not for my historical fiction written under the Ryatt Eddie Cash name. That’s just my preference. How you situate the chapters is critical, though. Just as the episodes have a point and purpose, so does the chapters. What I like to do is use a traditional story structure. Lately it’s been the three act structure.
Episodes in Three Acts
I’m sure everyone remembers the drawing from your high school English class with the rising action, climax, denouement, and conclusion. The simplistic version of that structure may work in a short story, but for longer works it’s a little more difficult.
What I enjoyed was finding an article by Emma Johnson (read it here) about planning your novel using the three act structure. She took each act and broke it down into three blocks, of which she broke down further to three chapters within the block. For each act it gave about nine chapters. For a novel I’m working on right now that I hope will be ready by 2021 is a modern military thriller and I titled each act in the three act structure as: Find, Fix, Finish. That gave me further baseline what I wanted to do in the acts.
How you can break down the acts in the structure is this:
Block One: Introduce hero in their ordinary world.
Block Two: Problem disrupts hero’s life.
Block Three: Hero’s life changes direction (due to disruption).
Block One: Hero explores new world after change in direction.
Block Two: Crisis of a new world.
Block Three: Finding a solution.
Block One: Victory seems impossible.
Block Two: Hero finds power.
Block Three: Hero fights and wins.
Remember that each block will usually contain about three chapters, but feel free to mess with that, because it is your story and this is to give guidance on structure and organization which gives depth to the story. If you can relay the events within a block in two chapters, write two chapters. If it takes four or five, write four or five. Take your episodic chapters and plug them into the blocks and get writing.