Chapter structure woes

2 years ago | Spivak (Member)

So I'm new to both serial writing as well as writing in general, which means everything about my serial is a whole new experience, and I've learned quite a bit in the past two months. One thing that I still need to improve on, however, is chapter breaks and story flow, so I want to pick you guys' brains on this one issue:

Where do you put your chapter breaks?

By that I mean how do you segment the story and publish it? For me, I started with the plan of 1 chapter per week, each chapter having between 2K - 3K words. I figured this schedule is really doable, and I could even improve on it if there was a need for bonus chapters. So I divided my story into 'acts' - basically like a season of a TV serial - each having their own intro, middle and end, character arc, yadda yadda... Then wrote that act and every 2-3 thousand words I would find a good place to stop and break into a new chapter.

The good about this approach is that it's pretty reliable. Sometimes you end up having a chapter that's too long or too short because there was no good stopping point in that range. But generally the chapters divided pretty easily, I knew how long it would take for me to write a chapter, and I just concentrated on the structure of the 'act' (pretty sure that's not the proper term, btw. I suppose you could call the main arc a 'chapter', and break that into 'sub-chapters' or whatever, but it's just a different flavor of confusing).

The problem with the approach above is that sometimes you get a whole chapter where not much has happened. Either it's all setup for the next chapter, or the climax of the act happened last chapter, and the next one is just the denouement and set-up for the next act... Basically, the structure of each chapter kinda suffered, even if it held up when read all together.

So what I tried to do is plan the structure of the chapters, as well as the act, so that EVERY chapter had its mini-arc, or at least some change in circumstances so that things change between the chapter starting and the chapter ending. I also tried to start the chapter with a problem, situation or question, and end the chapter with the problem solved or getting worse, or the situation changed, or the question answered or discussed.

As a result I like my new chapters better, and hope they will feel more satisfying to read and be better structurally. At least they feel like an improvement in my (biased) opinion. BUT, this choice also means more work separating the chapters and figuring them out, and is also making the chapter lengths unpredictable. Now I've head chapters breaking into the 4K word limit, and I can no longer plan how long exactly it will take me to finish a chapter. Because a chapter is no longer 'around 2 to 3 thousand words' worth of story' but 'a mini-arc that has to start like this, end like that, and have this and this in the middle'. So not only their length is impossible to control, but they're now tending to be longer and longer.

So what are your thoughts on this? How do you choose where to start and end your chapters, and how does that affect the overall structure, both of the chapter and the overall story? I'm curious to see if other people had similar issues, and how they dealt with them. Let me hear your thoughts!

(silly PS side note: All this stuff I just wrote about a chapter feeling better or feeling unsatisfying is obviously from my own point of view, and might not be correct. I'm a newbie writer and this whole post is my opinion, and so I don't feel obligated to end every sentence with 'in my opinion' or 'although I'm not sure if this is true'. Also, if you happen to read my serial you wouldn't see any of what I'm talking about because I have a buffer, and the whole 'every chapter is a mini-arc' experiment only started in act 4, which I still haven't published. Everything in these parentheses is irrelevant to the main post, but I wanted to add it for completeness' sake. If you managed to read it all up to here, then congratulations! Your boredom threshold is quite impressive!)

Read responses...


  1. LadyAnder (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    I don't really plan my chapters out so strictly to a structure and label the events occurring. For me, I write very organically where I don't actively think about theses things. That's not how I learned to write. I mean, you start throwing plot structure at me and force me to write that way, I probably would get confused even after all the years I have.

    I mean, the only story I really tried to stick to a structure was, well, my web-fiction novel. And I did it because of the kind of story it is. I wasn't entirely focused on plot but I needs a structure to keep it tight. Each chapter had a point it needed to cover. Something I need to establish or stay to keep the story moving.

    I also really dislike trying to write to a word count. I think it's easier to write longer chapters and then editing them down to as short as they can get but not trying to force my length to remain at 3,000 + or - words long. There are some chapters that are going to be quiet long because of what I need to cover as there are no naturally breaks.

    One particular chapter in my webnovel still irks me because it's almost 6,000 words long. Wayyyyy over the range I set. Not to mention it's the longest chapter in the entire story, I think. I didn't want it that long but the context of the chapter is why I couldn't just split it. One of the characters reveals a lot that he's been avoiding and everything in the act was building up to that point. I could probably edit it down now but it will never be a 3,500 word long chapter.

    A cross-genre slice=of-life, some adventure fluff fantasy stories about elves-->
  2. unice5656 (Moderator)

    Posted 2 years ago

    I generally aim to have a 3k word chapter length but it does vary around +/- 1k on a regular basis and sometimes goes way longer or shorter.

    The thing about online serials is that you can structure them to be the same as novels where the chapter length is entirely determined by the story plot and flow, or you can structure them to be much more like TV shows in terms of the episodic nature of each chapter. Things don't necessarily have to "happen" in every chapter, as long as it has some elements of what gives the story its characteristic draw. For mine, I alternate between elements such as relaxing slice-of-life scenes, comedy, action/adventure, and romance/relationship building.

    One thing that some people do is end all of their chapters on cliffhangers, generally because they have some kind of paywall for the latest chapter. I, in contrast, try to leave each chapter feeling relatively finished because I have an infrequent and irregular update schedule and that would be unfair to readers.

  3. Dary (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    If you're just starting out, it's better to just write the story, then worry about chapter breaks once you have a better idea of the whole picture. You're diving in at the deep end, otherwise.

    And the thing with TV shows is that they're edited. A lot. The scripts are rewritten and revised even when filing, in some cases, and then the stuff that's been filmed gets edited on top of that. That's how they keep to such strict times.

    Also, they're professionals. You don't get to write for TV unless you know the ropes.

    So just relax, and write.

    Personally, I'd say not to worry about hitting strict word counts. Let chapters be as long as they need to be. Don't take two thousand words to say what you could in two hundred - but don't rush something that needs two thousand, either.

  4. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    My chapters tend to range between 1600 to 3500 words. :-/

    It averages about 1800 to 2000. However, there are outliers. Occasionally I've had updates that are 300, 400 words because they're short transitional ones. This is fine for Curveball since each issue consists of multiple chapters going up at once but it can be awkward when you're doing one update a week/month whatever.

    But overall I agree with Dary -- having a wordcount goal is nice, but I let the rhythm of the chapter and the overall story decide when it needs to end.

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)
  5. mathtans (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    Meant to chime in on this, but the end of November got a bit nuts. Anyway, just to offer up how things evolved for me...

    -When I started writing serials I didn't know that's what I was doing. I was envisioning "tv style", kind of like the acts thing you mention, and basically wrote towards being done in six pages every time (versus a word count). I didn't really have any issues with the cap because I just had a major event in mind each "episode", like "trapped in the past and hurt" or "Carrie makes Julie suspicious", and that would happen before I had to figure out how to end it with a teaser. Were some episodes kind of dry? Yeah, but so are some tv episodes.

    -Personified math was just meant to be math jokes vaguely linked by plot. As the plots got more convoluted, and the cast got bigger, the entries did get longer and longer... but they were only a couple hundred words initially, so I never felt like they got out of control. (Eventually that turned into a webcomic due to lack of readership and to emphasize graph hairdos.)

    -Once I'd been doing this for YEARS, I started plots-by-voting. This time I did aim for about 2,000 words per entry, and as the parts ended, there was always something to vote on regarding what happens next. Sometimes I didn't reach where I thought I would, but that was fine, I could usually randomly come up with a new fork in the road at about 2k, and eventually the voting would be seen in a later part. Since I had next to zero idea of where the story would go, no problem with structure, and I'd basically impose my own "rhythm". And every part would change character point-of-view, to keep it interesting. (Or annoying, for all I know.)

    -I now do a mix of things. I wrote "The Girl Who Speaks With Algebra" with parts in mind, concluding roughly when a page threshold finishes. I'm writing a sequel time travel story which isn't chopped at all, so I will chop it into arcs and pieces based roughly on word count. (It's not too tricky to tweak the writing so that things are a bit more suspenseful as needed, or simply end on a character asking a question. I've done this once already with University Witch case files.) And I'm still tossing out 2,000 words every two weeks, which actually get about 4 votes on average these days.

    So I guess the final message is, you do you, and don't be afraid to vary it up depending on the story. Incidentally, Jim Z's "Legion of Nothing" is quite good at having endings that make you want to keep clicking, even if the characters are just chatting about their situation. As an example.

    Writing a Time Travel serial:
    Writer of the personification of math serial:
  6. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 2 years ago

    I have series of events that I write toward, but I then stop at 800-1000 words twice a week.

    That said, I stop even if I don’t reach the next event I’m writing toward. Also, when I start writing again my first priority is to write what naturally flows from the last update. I don’t write with the intent of reaching the next event. That needs to feel organic even if it’s not the fastest way to get there.

    At the same time, I also try to leave each update with a hint of what’s coming in the next one. I don’t think of them as cliffhangers as much as hints. This is partly because the characters aren’t necessarily in danger. Putting them in danger every 800-1000 words would be too often. Mostly I try to end with a sentence with the most narrative push for the reader of the ones that flow naturally from the action in the story.

    That’s all. I’m not doing anything special.

  7. Spivak (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    Thank you for all your replies, everyone! Definitely given me some food for thought.

    Some things seem constant. Chapters fluctuate depending on the situation. A lot of people at least think on how to end the chapter, whether with a cliffhanger, foreshadowing or resolution. And a lot of people prefer to write the story more organically, rather than worrying too much about structure.

    Part of me wonders if I'm over-thinking things. It's just I have a particular dislike for stories that ramble on and on while the plot jogs in place forever and minor contrivances keep appearing just to make the plot longer while being solved just as easily (looking at you, most romance shows after the first few chapters). Serial stories (web fiction, TV, etc) is especially prone to this, so I wanted to avoid it. But maybe stressing out too much over chapter structure is not the solution.

    Question: What about the beginning of the chapter? Do you pay any special attention to that?

    Me, I always try to 'set the scene', describing as briefly and naturally as possible the situation the characters are in. My serial is out once a week and I worry sometimes people might bring up the newest chapter and forget about what happened last time. A lot of TV shows have that 'previously on ...' segment, and while that might be overkill, I try to at least make sure any reader is not confused if they read the last chapter a week ago and are suddenly picking it up again. So, no stopping the chapter mid-action or mid-dialogue if at all possible. And if I do, I set the scene at the start of next chapter to make sure people don't get confused.

    Again, thanks for all the replies. It's nice to hear people's thoughts on this stuff :)

  8. LadyAnder (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    I don't do anything special to the beginning of the chapters.

    A cross-genre slice=of-life, some adventure fluff fantasy stories about elves-->
  9. Thedude3445 (Member)

    Posted 2 years ago

    Chapter structure is really important to me. For my currently-publishing serial and for most long-form stories I write, I try to make each chapter one scene as if it were in a movie, but then not quite as rigid as that either because film is a completely different medium. Basically, it's gotta tell its own complete "thing", like how each paragraph in an essay should have its own complete topic. Or... something like that. I like to sometimes really ramp up the serialization aspect of a serial and go full on with sudden cliffhangers and dramatic chapters gaps, the kinds of connective tissue between chapters that will hopefully keep readers engaged without being annoying.

    I come more from the world of comics and webcomics, though, where pacing within the structure of a story is quite different from the typical novel, and that might be an important distinction. A wordcount for chapters at 800-1500 words, to me, sounds a lot better than 2500-3000, though it's probably better to ignore wordcount when you're first writing a chapter (that comes with editing). I heavily outline ahead of time and do so entirely based on the story, never on length. Some people don't like to outline in detail but I think it's essential, at least for keeping myself organized.

    As for the starts of chapters, I think you definitely gotta have that connective tissue to bring readers in from the previous chapter. Especially for serial readers, it's important to "set the scene" even if it's just a sentence or two, or a few paragraphs, but it has to serve that triple whammy of setting the tone/mood, catching readers up from the previous chapter, and being independently engaging/moving the story forward. Doing a "previously on" full-on recap is overkill, but a few throwaway sentences that might help convey to readers "hey, don't forget, this is what just happened a couple pages/scenes ago" is good.

    Sorry boss, but there's only two men I trust. One of them's me. The other's not you.


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