31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep: Day 19 – How Do I Break My Novel Into Chapters?

Hey guys, welcome back to Day 19 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”, where we’re learning about breaking your novel up into chapters. If you’re sitting there like, “Whoa, wait, I don’t even have a novel to break into chapters!” then that probably means you haven’t read the other 18 posts in this series. If that’s the case, you can catch up here, or you can check out the corresponding YouTube videos here. I know that, technically, we’re getting into topics that’ll only really matter once you’ve actually written your novel come November, but what’s the harm in that? Better to be prepared, I say!

Splitting a novel into chapters is an interesting process. Sometimes it’s easy, and other times it feels like you’re performing brain surgery on your book baby. But before we can get into splitting your novel up, we need to make sure that you know what a chapter is. For some of you, this may seem obvious, but it’s always better to start by building a strong foundation. So, chapters. Chapters are the way you divide your book up, usually with the use of numbers, titles, or both. They can be one page long, or thirty pages long. They can consist of one scene or multiple scenes. They can be the same length or all different lengths. All that matters is how you want to tell your story.

I want to make it clear, though, that you don’t have to have chapters in your novel. You could split your novel into large chunks and label them as “parts”, or you could leave your novel completely un-broken up. However, there are a few good reasons for splitting your novel up in some way. Allow me to explain.

First, it helps give the reader a sense of moving forward in the book, as opposed to a seemingly never-ending block of text. Even a few paragraph breaks would help with this, if you don’t intend on splitting your novel into chapters or parts. The goal is to divide the book into easily consumable chunks for your readers. Second, it gives readers who need motivation to read a solid goal to shoot toward. They can decide to read a chapter a day, or to read to chapter 6 in that particular reading session, etc. Third, it provides a sort of stopping point for readers if they aren’t able to finish the book in one reading session (and makes it easier for them to find their place the next time they sit down to read). Really, chapters sort of act as a way for you to guide your readers as they try to feel their way through your book. If you insert some kind of break into your novel, you’re either A) telling the reader that this is a good place to stop if they need to step away for whatever reason, or B) building suspense in order to give your reader a reason to keep reading.

So how do you know what to include in a chapter? Well, I’ve heard some people say that a chapter should have its own small plot line with a beginning, middle, and end. To a certain degree, I agree with this. I think a chapter where nothing really happens is boring and the best way to lose the interest of the reader. However, sometimes ending a chapter without a resolution (aka, ending with a cliffhanger, which we’ll be talking about tomorrow) can be very effective. This would be used to build suspense, like I mentioned a moment ago. Of course, there’s right and wrong ways to use a cliffhanger to end a chapter, but we’ll talk about that in tomorrow’s post.

One thing I would highly recommend is to refrain from splitting your novel into chapters until you’ve at least written the full first draft of the manuscript. The first time I split my book The Caspian Chronicles: The Forbidden Prophecy into chapters, it was while I was writing my first draft, and it ended up being a hot mess. This was because I made a few rookie mistakes. First, I tried to make sure each chapter had approximately the same word count. This resulted in either over or underwriting, depending on the chapter. If I was getting close to my 2,000 word limit, I’d either cut descriptions to make my goal, or else I’d get fluffy with my writing to hit the goal. So don’t be like me, and don’t try to write for word count goals. Wanting a certain amount of words or pages per chapter is fine, but only try to make that happen after you’re happy with your writing. And don’t make the goal as rigid as I did. Try to say “I’d be fine going a thousand words over or under my goal” or “Three pages over or under my goal would be alright.” Because, trust me, readers don’t care if every single chapter has the same amount of pages or words. They care about the content of the chapter.

Which leads me to my second mistake, which was that I had a lot of superfluous scenes. Because I was trying to make word count goals for each chapter, I found myself adding filler scenes so that I could start and end my chapters with the scenes I thought would be the most exciting. I was trying to start and end on cliffhangers and then the middle was all mush. I was especially guilty of adding in a lot of unnecessary scenes between my main character and my favorite character, because their interactions were funny. The problem was, funny or not, those scenes added nothing to the story whatsoever. They were just there as padding. My advice to you is a saying my freshman English teacher, Mr. Nevins, used to say: “Drop the fluff and stick to the stuff.” Don’t add extra scenes that don’t move the story forward just to make your chapter a certain length. Quality over quantity, as they say.

This time around, for my rewrite, I did things differently. I completely ignored the chapters that I’d created for my story the first time. I used Scrivener and wrote my book out scene by scene, and then, once I’d made sure the manuscript was at a place where I felt confident it wouldn’t change too much, I began splitting it up. Sometimes one scene made up a chapter, sometimes multiple scenes did. Sometimes I’d split a scene in half in order to create a cliffhanger. The chapters didn’t end up being perfectly even, but that was okay, because the story flowed smoothly, which was all that mattered in the end.

This is the method I’d recommend you use, as well. It makes your writing feel seamless and it allows you to have more control over the content of your chapters as a whole. You may have to rework some of the transitions between scenes, and it may take you a few tries to really get the hang of how your novel flows and what the best way to split your novel up is, but I promise that, with time and patience, you’ll figure out the perfect balance for your story.

And if you’re looking to end your chapters on cliffhangers, you’re in luck, because, like I mentioned earlier, tomorrow’s lesson is all about how and when you should use said cliffhangers. If that sounds interesting to you, then I’ll see you tomorrow for Day 20 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”!

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