One could look at a book like a concept album (or CD or list of downloads, whatever.) Each chapter is a song, and everyone should be integral to the overall agenda.
I’ve already covered the subject of anthologies in a recent column. Those are more like compilation albums, with contributions from several different artists.
But a novel has to be cohesive, with each chapter connected not just by concept, but also by continuity of narrative.
Still, there is a way to give each one its own unique flavor, so that it could stand on its own as short story, even if nothing is resolved.
Depending on your book’s length, your book could have just a few or many chapters. In fact, some short books have far chapters than longer books. The number of chapters is often determined by how you’re threading and weaving your narrative.
Does each end on a cliffhanger, to keep the pages turning, but also offer readers an enticing break, keeping them wondering till they have time to pick it up again? This episodic format is common in thrillers and crime novels.
Or is each chapter more like its own individual vignette, bonded together by common characters, but each exploring different facets of the main story, ultimately weaving them together into a single mosaic, whose ultimate pattern can only be revealed once the reader reached the end? You could apply this technique to a mystery as well.
It’s totally up to you, and that’s both the fun and the challenge of writing.
Basically, you need to discover and sustain the internal “rhythm” of your book, so each chapter flows into the next one, and doesn’t feel like it was dropped in randomly from someplace else.
This is why I compare the construction of fiction to a musical piece. Your prose and dialogue should “sing,” but it also needs a backup band in the form of your plot, otherwise your words are standing alone on a barren stage without the proper instrumentation. The audience will quickly grow bored and leave.
And all instrumentation needs the right arrangement to make it work in concert with your concept.
This is where breaking your book into chapters comes in.
Slice or Dice?
Sometimes when you do an outline in advance, you will break your story into chapters, like a movie’s storyboards are divided into scenes. You work hard to fine tune each and every part. Only when you stand back, you can appreciate the big picture.
There have been books where I actually wrote the chapters out of order, then rearranged them once the story had been written, because the placement of each piece affected the mood, trajectory and pacing of the story.
As you’re writing, you will find not all chapters need to be of equal length. Or maybe you decide that they should all be around the same “size.” Again, your story, and how you decide to tell it, will dictate the composition.
All six of my Vic Valentine, Private Eye novels has fourteen chapters each. Why? Because Valentine’s Day falls on February 14. That may sound like an arbitrary and capricious way to organize a book, but in this case, it actually helped me figure out how much and what sort of materials I needed in order to build this “blueprint.”
If I am naming each chapter – a creative choice, which varies from book to book – I often make my own table of contents in advance. The chapter titles can actually inspire their content, which prevents me from feeling blocked.
But other books I’ve written have had multiple brief chapters that were merely numbered, not named (which is the norm, especially now); each one isolated by incident, but unified by tone and style, since they’re all conveying the same story, but spotlighting different aspects of a situation or player. Sometimes I even switched voices, from first to third person, to keep the reader guessing as to the identity of the narrator.
All of this is tricky stuff, and you have to be careful you don’t get tangled up in your own web.
But by treating each chapter like its own unique piece, you will feel like you’re making progress each time you complete one, maintaining momentum as a storyteller. Even if you are following a meticulously devised outline, you will approach the next installment with anxious anticipation.
This sense of gradual accomplishment and growing excitement will inspire you to keep writing, and by extension, the reader to keep reading.