Most writers have a sense for how a novel is structured. But what about chapters? We tend to make a few common mistakes, like beginning a chapter with a character waking up and ending it with the character going to bed (or getting knocked unconscious). In other words, the chapter doesn’t know where to begin and when to end, and so as long as the character is awake, the chapter keeps going.
Different kinds of novels handle chapters differently, but it’s usually the case that genre novels contain short chapters. A great example of this kind of chapter—and a great example for how these short chapters are structured—can be found in Shannon A. Thompson’s new Young Adult Dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow. You can read the opening chapters here at Smashwords.
How the Novel Works
Let’s look at the first two chapters of the novel, which are quite different in terms of setting and content but which use a similar structure. In the first chapter, the narrator, a teenager named Sophia, meets an unexpected person. The chapter begins with Sophia running through the woods with her dog. She’s checking on her father’s land while he’s away and clearly feeling at home:
Spring was the best season − when everything smelled of moss, alive and wet. But it was August. The muggy air sucked all the life out of the plants, leaving them dry, disheveled, and dead. Today, the forest smelled of burnt grass and dried mud. Among the pivots, the creek bed, and the broken logs, I followed the trail, and my dependable dog ran in front of me.
Then, she runs into a stranger:
a boy whose “tone was sarcastically carefree, his stare was intense, shadowed by the setting sun. I recognized the stillness in his expression. It was a predatory look, the expression of an animal preparing an attack.”
But by the end of the scene, the boy’s tone has shifted:
“‘Am I near the park?’ His quiet tone was rushed. ‘That’s where I meant to go.’ His shoulders slumped in defeat. ‘Really.'”
That tone isn’t the only major shift. The boy hurries away because someone else has arrived, and that arrival causes a change in the narrator:
“My usually goofy friend was a mess. His mop of brown curls sprung into his widened eyes, and he wheezed from the run. His alarmed expression ruined any lasting comfort I maintained. Something was wrong. Seriously wrong.”
One of the smartest things I ever heard about crafting scenes was from writer and screenwriter Owen Egerton. He shared with me the screenwriting tip that scenes should almost always contain a reversal (a “flip” of a situation) or a change in tone. So, if a scene starts out happy, it should end with sadness. Of course, the best scenes will end in ways that don’t change the tone 180 degrees but instead change it in a way that is less predictable. This is precisely what Thompson does in her first chapter. The chapter begins with the character’s confidence in her own knowledge of her surroundings and ends with that confidence disrupted.
The next chapter does something similar. It begins with a risky encounter with the police, who are enforcing a State-mandated curfew. The encounter goes smoothly, according to the expectations of one character:
“Everything is a scare tactic with these people. They don’t check everything.”
The chapter ends with the knowledge that another encounter with the State is coming, and this one will be more serious and more dangerous: “I need you to bring me a bag of food, water, and one of your dad’s knives to school.”
Though the scene ends on a similar note as it began, the stakes have been dramatically increased.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s structure chapters using the novel Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon A. Thompson as a model:
- Choose the scene(s) at the heart of the chapter. I’m using the word scene because it’s sometimes a more helpful organizational unit than chapter. Most of us know what a scene is even if we have no idea what a chapter should look like. Scenes also appear in stories, whereas chapters do not. So, start by outlining a scene that you know will appear in the story/novel. There may be passages that come before or after it, but you should focus on the drama that you know will occur.
- Identify and clarify the tone or situation at the beginning of the scene(s). You can think about this in two ways. One, what is the situation at the beginning of the scene? Think broadly. What problem is the character facing? What approach is the character using? What is the character’s attitude? What is the balance of power? Two, what is the tone at the beginning of the scene? Is it serious? Comic? Goofy? Casual? Think about the scene as a whole, not necessarily the character’s emotions. For instance, a birthday party is casual, but a waiting room at a hospital is likely serious.
- Reverse or shift the tone or situation at the end of the scene(s). When you reverse or change any of these situations, you can go for a full reversal (happy to sad, birthday party to cancer), or you can go for a change in degree. So, if someone has more power, that person’s power could be amplified or reinforced rather than diminished or taken away. When you change the tone, you can keep the setting the same but introduce an element that changes the way we view it. For instance, if an ambulance shows up to a birthday party, the tone has changed from fun and casual to serious and formal. (As a general rule, if a scene contains people in uniform, then it’s probably formal.) You can also produce a change in degree: mildly happy to incredibly happy. For instance, birthday parties are mildly happy, but if you’re given a gift of a lottery ticket, and you scratch it and win a million dollars, the party just got a lot happier.
The key to all of these steps is to identify what you establish at the beginning of a scene. By the end of that scene, at least one of the basic building blocks of the scene should have changed. If you’re trying to decide where to end a chapter or scene, consider picking a moment immediately after something essential has changed.