When to cut chapters, Part 2

Instead of focusing on whole chapters, I want to narrow my focus to singular chapters with multiple scene shifts, which usually coincide with changes in perspectives, such as the case with Dark Orbit and its two main characters, Thora and Sara.

And since this is part 2, let’s focus on Chapter 2!

In Chapter 2, as I mentioned earlier, the reader opens to a scene with Thora’s audio diary, always recorded in italics (since this is the written record): “Iris, they have called it: the rainbow planet” (Gilman 23). As previously mentioned, this jump-starts the chapter with perspective orientation and scene setting. We now know that we will read from Thora’s perspective as she looks upon the distant planet from the space ship. (The space ship is a little bit of a stretch, but as you read further, you will get that from the beginning paragraph.)

This scene continues with Thora’s internal dialogue as she reflects how she hides who she really is, how she must always pretend to be normal. It’s not until the end of the chapter that we realize Thora’s want: to escape, stated as wanting to escape into the planet’s light, which she thinks is a shield to hide all of Iris’ secrets.

(This is a beautiful metaphor since light normally reveals, and instead, on the planet, conceals all of Iris’ secrets.)

So far what I can tell is that we’re still introducing Thora’s perspective and character, revealing her background and desires, which is where this perspective leaves us. It stops on a detail of Thora’s character, which is not really enough to drive us forward yet but it does help set up the story. 

The next perspective opens with Sara, how she was “practically the last one to arrive aboard the questship” (Gilman 25). Again, this sets the scene, and the perspective continues with Sara’s analysis of the crew members since this is her first time aboard the ship (still in introduction-mode with this chapter). Her perspective ends with an observation, of who is the last character she has to meet.

It seems like so far, perspective shifts are creative choices. Once the author has shown us what she has to say, then that perspective is thorough, although this next scene shift has some flow since both the end and start of the next orientation talks about observation and spies.

Thora begins with “I know the Magisterium must have sent someone here to spy on me” (Gilman 40). And this is true! Sara is meant to spy on Thora. This I consider one of the best scene breaks since Sara stops on this thought and Thora begins on the same one. This scene continues as her natural flow in thoughts, which reveal how untrusting she is. It then ends with a internal revelation, “But if I ever do [become trusting], then I will lose my power, and become like all the other content, unmindful people, ordinary and undriven” (Gilman 41).

So far I have to say that all of Thora’s scenes end with a detail about her character. In the first one, we get a desire, and in this one, we get another desire. Each of these facts are continuing to define her – the entire purpose of this chapter: To introduce all our characters. 

But this isn’t the end to her perspective, only to this specific scene. Her perspective continues with a vague sentence, “I need to record this now, while it is still fresh in my mind” (Gilman 41), evolving into a recollection of her dream and memories of how she found the first murder aboard the ship. Her scene ends with an observation – the final for the chapter – “He almost had the look of a min in love – and in a sense, so he was, for whoever had committed this brutal act was now his prey” (Gilman 44).

Even though this is her scene, the perspective is widening. She has only commented, or reflected, on how the security guard looks when he find out there there’s a murder, which feels like more of a fade out in a movie. We’ve ended the chapter with a complication, an increase in tension, and the perspective is beyond Thora now. The rest of this chapter already finished its purpose: to define our characters. 

In conclusion, in my opinion, each scene break coincides with a fact, particularly the most important ones of this chapter. Because this chapter’s purpose was to introduce characters, each fact we end on is related to the development of all the different characters, including minor ones aboard the ship and the other main protagonist. 

I think if I were to examine the other chapters, I would find the same results: End on a factual statement that can be collected and equated to the purpose of the chapter. 

Gilman, Caryoln Ives. Dark Orbit. New York, NY: Tor, 2015. Print.


When to cut chapters


Dark Orbit is written in chapters, and not just the ordinary chapters with a single story but with multiple scenes coalesced into a single chapter. And each chapter break also coincides with a perspective change, alternating between Sara and Thora, or at least most of the time. (Read the italics for the theory on chapter breaks.)

Chapter 1: About Sara reorienting herself with Capeallan society after 25 years, this chapter overviews the main character’s background and personality while introducing a new plot line: observing/protecting Thora aboard the space ship, called Escher. This chapter comes in right when Sara coalesces on the transmission pad and ‘fades’ out at the ending of her job assignment meeting with her boss.

Chapter 2: This chapter introduces us  to the second main character, Thora, in the form of a written version of her audio diary. “Iris, they have called it: the rainbow planet” (Gilman 23). It first focuses on facts, on the new setting of where our characters are now located. And then after, introduces some of the tension points (which crew members are present and their relationships with each other) and new conflict (somebody was murdered within their room). It fades out with Thora remembering how she showed the crime to the head of security.

Chapter 3: “News of the murder spread through the ship at the speed of a rumor…” (Gilman 45) continues the tension with the murder, except a reversal in perspective, this time continuing with Sara. But while the murder is still a mystery, the scientists continue their mission to the planet’s surface, ending with Sara wondering where Thora had gone, ramping up the tension with a new conflict: where had the book’s most central character gone? And had she been murdered?

Chapter 4: The first line of this chapter continues with the conflict, changing the setting, by moving all the characters back to the ship. Even though there is a portion with Thora’s POV, most of the chapter sits in Sara’s POV, trying to figure out where Thora went or was murdered. At least, until a new conflict is added within the last line of the chapter, “Sara, it’s a native” (Gilman 92).

Already I’m sensing a bit of a pattern. The first line of each chapter continues the previous situation, reinstating the conflicts as a bit of a reminder. Which makes me think it’s almost a sales gimmick – for those who have put the book down between chapter, it’s easy to jump back and remember what you just read.

And the last line, almost section, of each chapter introduces another conflict that ramps up the tension of next portion of the book. Notice it’s always something different, whether a complicaiton or conflict: first the murder, then another supposed murder, and now native where they expected none. We’re maybe a third into the book, and we’re easily being pulled along.

Chapter 5: “I am in darkness,” says Thora in her audio diary (Gilman 93), introducing us to a new setting and giving away a point of tension, that Thora is still alive and well, but somehow blind at this point in time. The chapter continues with Thora, discovering where she is, which natives rescue her, and why she is here. It ends with with a point of excitement for her character: “I am tantalized by the thought that they can lead me to something I have been seeking for a very long time” (Gilman 115).

I also think it’s very interesting that most intros and conclusions of each chapter start with an internal reflection. It’s very few to open/close with dialogue or action, usually only with reflection by the character. 

Chapter 6: This chapter actually feels like a continuation of chapter 4 because it restarts with Sara’s reaction to the dialogue of ‘a native.’ It then moves to the native’s interaction with Sara and the rest of the crew, and ends with the realization they will have to teach a blind person to see in order to get Thora back.

Chapter 7: And then back to Thora! Another internal reflection, not really a setting-related fact, only a feeling: exhausted. This chapter continues to delve into Thora’s interactions with the local community, and how she is learning more about her past, herself, and something the natives call, the Ground. The last thing we read is Thora’s feelings on the subject: “I think I am close to an important discovery, perhaps more important than anything I have ever learned – yet if I could escape tomorrow, I would” (Gilman 164).

Chapter 8: Back to Sara and teaching the native to see, as stated in the first line of the chapter, reorienting us in the perspective and plot. It continues with this purpose, except toward the end, conflict is ramped: the native had vanished and a gravity bubble, or spatial anomaly, appeared in the space ship, which broke their lightbeam assembler, preventing their return to Capella Two.

At this point, I believe the slowest chapters are Thora’s, but having finished the book, I also believe these are the most important. The slowness comes from the fact they are so reflective, without the tension-heavy conflict that comes from Sara. But I think it’s Sara, action-heavy perspective that helps propels the book forward, revealing Thora’s discovery, with the aid from Sara, who thinks in more plain terms, being a scientist that observes culture, not the senses. 

Chapter 9: This chapter starts with an observation: the medicine man was reluctant to take Thora on as a student with the rest of the chapter showing how she became the student and learned his experiences. It ends with a new conflict: the gravity anomalies are getting worse, and Thora needs the medicine man for help, except he’s gone. This ramps up the tension at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 10: Another observation starts this chapter: a character’s reaction to Thora’s reaction. Thora must get home, but a character helps lead home to her, ending with a partial conclusions – Thora was found: “There, lying in the perfect blackness beneath them, was Torobe” (Gilman 240).

Chapter 11: And yet another observation, this time of the what the city looks like, directing our attention to the new setting and that we’re set in Sara’s perspective. This chapter shows the city’s desperation, and the first contact between the two communities as they ask each other for help. The last part of the chapter shows tension ramping up with a new complication: the space ship was rearranged from the spatial anomaly.

It seems not only are chapters started by a continuation or restatement of the previous happenings, but can also start with an observation that helps set the scene. I still find it conclusive that each chapter ends with either a profound thought or some sort of tension ramping which encourages the reader to continue with the story rather than stop and take a break. 

Chapter 12: Restatement: “They returned to a different ship than they had left” (Gilman 263). This is the people’s last chance to save each other, but they must trust each other – a difficult thing considering that characters distrust each other from the initial murder and mission arrangement. But, it ends with a partial resolution: “He looked at her hand as if it were a cobra, but finally shook it” (Gilman 283).

Chapter 13: Another repetition of what readers have missed: “I am going back to Torobe,” says Thora (Gilman 285). She is the central character who is going to save the people of both communities. But it is Sara who we leave with, with a repetition of the initial introduction when she climbs back onto a lightbeam dis-assembler instead, bringing us in a complete circle.

I think it’s definitely safe to say these chapter breaks were designed with the act of reading in mind. Each starting sentence is with the intention to re-introduce readers to the action, reminding them what they had previously read while each ending sentence ramps up the tension with some sort of conflict or complication in order to encourage readers to keep on reading. 

It’s a very interesting design choice, and I think it’s a good thing to keep in mind when you want to encourage readers to finish your book. It can make the difference between a somewhat dragging read, to a faster read since readers who devour chapters are devouring your book. 

Gilman, Caryoln Ives. Dark Orbit. New York, NY: Tor, 2015. Print.

Chapter Design

As I’ve written before, chapters are designed to encompass a sort of mini story line within the bigger picture of your book, and depending on your story, they can vary in length, perspective, POV…Now because I just finished The Martian Chronicles, I thought this would be a great book to discuss chapter design since each chapter is a stand alone story.

The overall purpose of this book is unknown to me at the moment. I can tell you the book is mainly about Mars and settling the planet, but each chapter shows a different piece of the timeline. And I say timeline because this book really does span the start to the end of the settling of Mars…probably why it’s called The Martian Chronicles – the lifespan of one species of Martians to the next…but I’m getting off topic.

The first chapter sets the scene of the whole book, telling of the origin of the first rocket launch. And then the next chapter goes into the Martian perspective, telling of how the first expedition failed due to murder. I think this chapter was important for the book (even though most other chapters are from the human perspective) because we need to know what makes a Martian…martian. Now we know they’re telepathic, what they look like, how they live. It really sets the scene on Mars.

The next few chapters tell of similar stories. Of humans struggling to settle on Mars, either being killed or killing each other until finally the Martians are gone, wiped out by disease just like how Europeans killed the Native Americans here in North America. And this sets the tone for the rest of the book. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that although the book was telling the history of the planet within a span of 5 to 10 years, each chapter wasn’t only telling a piece of the timeline but relating to some bigger theme that tends to be a problem on Earth. This is worth noting because all these same people are leaving Earth for these same reasons, and these same problems follow them here as well.

Maybe the book is trying to tell us we’re creating these problems and we’re the source of them. Our problems will always follow us where we go.

This book is a great example of how to tell a story through a generation or time span, which I feel isn’t possible (or difficult to do) unless you span multiple perspectives like Bradbury did. He does a wonderful job writing each story with a new character, giving them their own wants, needs, and conflict, and shows how that story ends within the chapter while expanding the story of Mars in itself.

For example…

Chapter 8: After man was finally safe to settle on Mars, chapter 8 did a sort of summary discussion of how it was only a few men at first who came to settle Mars.

Chapter 9: Gives one man’s story of how he terraformed the planet in order to create a level of oxygen that was more natural for the humans settling on Mars. This is what helped create a more comfortable planet for the people.

Chapter 10: Used summary to show the growth of the population, including those of men and women.

Chapter 11: This chapter I feel like didn’t fit the story as much since it discussed a sort of…timeline cross. It told the story of a human made aware of a Martian and a Martian aware of the human, who were both in different timelines and couldn’t interact with the other besides talk and listen. Nothing similar followed this chapter.

Then there were more men, more women. There was a discussion of spreading religion to the Martians. A show of boys playing in the debris leftover in the Martian cities, before that was cleared. A scene of women on Earth wanting to go to Mars. Of a man creating a house of darkness, witchcraft and such in order to discuss censorship and rebellion against the old Earth orders…

This book alternates between quick summaries of the general population and long scenes with specific characters to emphasize specific events that are critical to the timeline of the settling of Mars.

I think this a good strategy if you are focused more on the plot than a specific character.

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1997. Print.

How long is a chapter?

When you think of a chapter, you think of a book, maybe a textbook, where there is a clear division between segments with a new title and number for each of them. But the question is, if you’re writing, how do you know where to make that division?

The easy answer is when you’re changing topics. For a book, there’s a logical transition through the plot. If you were on a mission to buy a grape, maybe the first chapter would be finding your keys, the second chapter would be starting the car, the third of calling a friend to drive you instead because your car wouldn’t stop…get the idea? Each chapter will have its own miniature plot, where you have a purpose that slowly builds up to the climax and reverses back to the resolution.

The long answer? There’s so many reasons! In the case of James Patterson, he’ll have chapters that are literally pages long. If you look in Maximum Ride, there are some chapters that only last a single page. What’s the point?

Marketing. Shorter pages means a quicker read. For people that measure their books by chapters, readers will feel more accomplished finishing a chapter rather than saying they finished a page.

But there’s more reasons than this. I’ll try to outline some reasons below:

  • Show developments within the plot
  • Change POV
  • Enhance dramatic effect

I would recommend sifting through some comments here. One person, Rob Bignell Editor, presented some good arguments, which I borrowed for my bullet-ed list above.

Other reasons appear when arguing different chapter lengths, outlined below:

Short Chapters Long Chapters
– Short attention spans

– Quicker paced stories

– Simple Plots

– Slower paced stories

– Complicated Plots

The main idea, which AJ Humpage does a wonderful job summarizing, is you cannot “pick a number like 80,000 and then divide it by 30 chapters to give you 2500 words a chapter (average).” Books’ chapter lengths vary. She wrote, “If you have ever read Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ or many Stephen King novels, then you’ll realise that a chapter can be a sentence long.  Or just one word.  Or it can be 5000 words.  Again, like novel length, chapter length is dictated by what is happening in the story, not by the law of averages and applied mathematics.”

As Brian A. Klems wrote, “When you find those “commercial breaks,” end your chapter and start a new one.”

PS. Keep in mind that not all books have chapters, although it’s most common that they do.