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Break Dancing, or Where to End your Chapter

Some people like long chapters that pull them deep into the world that the author is weaving around the the story. Others like short chapters. To say that all chapters must be long, or that all must be short would be similar to saying that you have write all long sentences or all short ones. Chapters, like paragraphs and sentences come in different lengths and evoke different feelings in the reader. Short chapters, as with paragraphs and sentences, move the story along briskly. Longer ones slow things down and allow time for the feel of the world you are creating to settle in the mind of the reader.

It is up to the author to decide where to break for a new chapter. That decision needs to be based on the needs of the story at that particular moment. It is a trap to simply start a new chapter whenever you start a new day of writing. It will make your story feel unbalanced and unfinished.

So where do you make the chapter break?

There are a few different reasons to end a chapter. The first and probably most over used is the cliff hanger. This is a hold over from the days when books were published a chapter a month in magazines. You needed something to get people to buy the magazine next month to see what happens. Comics still do this. A few cliff hangers are good, but too many just gets tiresome. The best place to put a cliff hanger chapter ending is just before a POV switch to another character involved in different action. A good cliff hanger doesn’t have an obvious or easy solution. It doesn’t have to involve physical danger, but there has to be something at risk.

Which brings me to the next reason for a chapter break. POV switch. I prefer writing entire chapters in the same POV. I don’t like reading stories where there is a lot of head hopping. So when you’re going to switch POV, start a new chapter. This is especially important if you are also changing the site of the action. An exception to the POV chapter break is if the characters are involved in the same action at the same location and you have a very good reason for switch POV. There is a discipline to staying with one POV for an extended time, but it will help you develop at a writer when you need to work out how to let your character learn what they need to learn to show the reader.

Natural breaks in the action are another good way to end a chapter. Everybody goes to bed. Instead of wasting time describing your characters sleeping. You end the chapter and start the next chapter with the characters awake and once more involved in meaningful action. Another form of this natural break is where you want to make a shift from quick action to more reflective thought. A major battle has been won (or lost) and your MC want to mourn the foolishness of war. A chapter break will signal and highlight the change in mood. That will allow you to follow the character into less ardous tasks and provide some contrast. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a variety of moods in one chapter. Let your story decide.

The last chapter break is a minor conclusion. Plot lines don’t go up evenly to the climax. Rather they should look a little like the graph on a seismograph. When your story has reached a point where a smaller obstacle has been resolved it may be a place to break. Just make sure that it doesn’t feel like the action is done. The above example is also an example of a minor conclusion. The characters get to live another day, but there is still the unfinished task hanging over their heads.

Knowing where to put chapter breaks is similar to knowing whether to write long or short sentences. It is about emphasizing parts of your plot and staying in control of pacing in your story. It is a skill that will mark you as an accomplished author. It is like dancing with your story. You need to feel the rhythm, but still stay in control.

The Swamp in the middle of your story.

The beginning of your book is exciting. You’re meeting new people, new relationships form. Stuff is happening! As you get past the beginning, all the people who are going to populate your book, with a few minor exceptions have been introduced. You know who likes who and who is hoping to do the bunny hop with who. It’s like October in High School, routine.

If you are drawing a graph of excitement in your novel it starts out high. If it doesn’t you need consider how you are going to draw your reader in. But, as the thrill of introductions wanes you go downhill to the lowest point of your novel. This is the swamp. This is where everything looks the same, there is no clear path and the bugs are eating you alive. You don’t want to stay in the swamp, but to get to the mountain on the other side ,which is the joy of completing your story and making sure that everyone gets what they deserve, you have to cross the swamp. There are no short cuts.

The problem is that the swamp is a dangerous place. If you aren’t careful that tuft of grass you are standing on will disappear and dump you into the murk. Some of that beautiful green turf is a lie and cheat, you will fall through and vanish. There are creatures here that eat novels whole. Writer’s block watches you from stagnant water waiting for you to show weakness. Unnecessary characters sit like vultures in the tree ready to enter your story and weigh down your plot. Real life buzzes around your head whispering that you’ve failed, again, and why don’t you get a real job. Will-o-the-wisps try to entice you away from your plot line.

For all the danger, there is treasure to be found in the swamp. Scattered islands of golden apples. Here is where the relationships that you created are tested and reforged. Strange beings give odd advice. Your characters learn to discern what they are about. What they are really about. This is where their false hopes and perceptions are stripped from them. This is the abode of that oddest of creatures – the talking donkey.

The talking donkey is the thing that comes from out of the bounds of the story and changes everything. It may be a car accident that forces someone to face their mortality. It may be an infestation of rats that eats everything a character owns so they realize that they valued none of it. It might be a midnight conversation with a stranger in a cemetery. The point is that it changes things. This above all is what makes the character different when they climb out of the swamp.

Every story has to have its swamp, its low point. It isn’t fun to be a writer in the swamp. It is messy, frustrating, and saps your energy, but this is where you can shine as a writer. Paying attention to what you do in the swamp will make your conclusion that much brighter. It takes discipline and courage. Sometimes you’ll get lost and have to retrace your steps. Sometimes the swamp dumps you onto a foreign shore and you have to decide whether to stay there or go back.

The longer your work, the more important the swamp is, and the more likely you will encounter it more than once. False peaks abound, but eventually you will prevail and the final mountain will rise out of the mists. It is then, scratching your bites and scraping of the mud from your feet, that you will make the exhilarating climb to the end.