A goal of every author: to get their readers, perhaps snuggled under the covers, to turn the page and say, rather sleepily, just one more chapter.
The end of chapters feel like a good place to turn out the light, right? So how do you know where to make the distinctions? Where to tell that reader that perhaps they’ve read enough and they really need some sleep?
Within the basic three act structure, chapters have even more specific purposes determined by where they fall in the story.
First Act? Chapters of the first act often set up the inciting incident, introduce characters, setting, drop in a little backstory, explain carefully the levels of goals that the characters have, and put the main character in a position to go forward with their plan.
Second Act? The second act chapters are the ups and downs of the story. They feature the protagonist’s adventure. Secondary goals are revealed, relationships are tested, adjustments are made, plans fail, plans succeed and there’s a push and pull of tension as the protagonist pursues specific goals. All of the chapters in the second act must work together with consistent pacing, heading toward the big climax at the end. Uniformity in the chapters is helpful, but not required.
Third Act? The third act is what happens once the final showdown has been fought and a literal or figurative winner has been declared. Once the dust settles, the characters face permanent change and most loose ends are tied up.
A good chapter should also have movement: the dialogue, plot points, tension, conflict, actual motion of characters, — any or all of it need to move from one point to another. The end of a chapter comes when you have a new conflict, new information, new perspective, or new tension and the characters have to make a decision about how to handle it, which sets you up nicely for the next chapter. What will they do now? For the sake of getting the readers to turn the page. Too much satisfaction at the end of a chapter, and your reader may fall asleep.
Purpose is far more important than style. Many authors need not worry about convention for length, number of scenes, however some genres may have general ideas — children’s chapter books usually have much shorter chapters than historical fiction.
Chapters are often good markers for when there’s a shift in the point-of-view character, time or place.
Chapters are containers to hold scenes and the scenes themselves reveal secrets, expose weaknesses, uncover betrayals, endure accidents, declare love, declare hate, overhear plans, lose treasures, find other treasures, get caught in traps, get caught with a lover, or surprise a reader — all while propelling the story forward.
Don’t know where to break your chapters? Have a trusted reader mark up your manuscript to look for those sections that have a touch of finality to them. There’s nothing wrong with editing by gut feeling. It feels like the end.
Regardless of where they are reading our goal is to get a reader to ask, “What happens next?”
With well-written chapters, they may just find out.