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.