Building a Chapter

These last few days, as I was writing, I thought a lot about what goes into each chapter, how each one is a singular thing which also must fit within the overall arc of where it’s placed within the book and also within the book itself.

I’ve been slowly stripping out bits and pieces which don’t belong in the book, or simply aren’t necessary to the narrative. One thing I’ve had to fight with myself over is taking a step back and realizing that not every chapter needs to be a work of art, some chapters are simply bridges which connect two other pieces of the story, or further the narrative.

I often write upside down, starting in the middle or even at the end of a chapter and working my way backwards until I arrive at the beginning. This latest chapter was one of those—I started in the middle and worked my way out and wrote the opening last. Sometimes I know how a chapter ends, but I don’t know where it starts, and sometimes it’s just the opposite.  This was one of those ‘workman’ chapters where I need an introduction to events that will unfold throughout the book. These are often the most difficult chapters for me to write. I know what needs to be done, but no lovely bit of prose is there to start me off, or some chunk of dialogue that tells me what’s happening; it’s just a blank screen and necessity. 🙂 So I know the information I need to convey, but the chapter also needs to have life in it, as well as fitting into the flow of what comes before and after.

I begin by asking myself where the chapter takes place, and the answer is clear—Pamela’s home. So then I ask what time of day it is, and when I stand inside the house and look around it’s clear to me that it’s early morning. No one is in the kitchen with me though, so I go up the stairs. Pamela’s asleep with baby Kathleen tucked in beside her. It’s a peaceful morning, and even Conor and Isabelle are still asleep. There’s someone downstairs though—I know it’s the nanny who works for Jamie, she’s sleeping in Lawrence’s old room. So a peaceful morning which is then shattered by a knocking on the door—and now I understand how the chapter will play out structurally. I know who is at the door as well, even though I’ve never seen him before.

  It’s early in the book so I know I have to remind people of what has happened to Pamela in the previous book, so that they know why someone knocking on the door would cause utter panic in her, and that’s a matter of balance—too much and it could become a long exposition of the history from the previous book, too little and people may not remember exactly what she has been through. I need to build in the effects of what has happened to her—and show it on the page. She’s worried not only for herself, but also for her children who have also been traumatized by recent events. So I know in this chapter I have to touch on her panic, her fears for her family, and also have a dialogue between her and the man on her doorstep that introduces the story line which will run throughout the entire book. This is both the centre and main purpose of the chapter—why is this man in her home and what does he want? This dialogue matters because it will set the stage for so much that follows. So I need to establish enough of who he is to give readers a sense of him. Dialogue is often a good starting place for me simply because I find it fairly easy to write- I can almost always tune into a conversation between two characters and the chapter can be built out from there.

Then of course the question becomes how to wrap it up? I like every chapter to have a closing line which feels like a closing line, not merely the last sentence on the page before we turn the page to a new chapter. It should feel complete so that the reader is ready to go on the next chapter as something fresh, though also connected to what’s come before. But of course you have to build to that closing sentence within the space of a paragraph or two. So then I have to consider what Pamela is feeling now that the man has left and she’s got a minute to breathe and think about things. Often chapter endings are a good way to summarize feelings and add in a bit more detail about where the character is at emotionally and mentally. So internal monologue often works well to end out chapters—this is one of those things I know in a logical fashion, but that I rarely think about when in the actual process of writing.


*At times it felt that her life was no longer known—like looking into the face of someone who’d once been beloved, and finding that she did not recognize them. And so she had made the conscious choice to love that which was no longer familiar. One had to choose to love the stranger’s face each and every day, and this she would do, because quite simply, there was no other choice to be had.*


And now it’s time to write the opening paragraphs and to immerse myself in that feeling of being deeply asleep, and having someone suddenly pound on your door—with the addition of already being very jumpy and prone to panic because of what happened to you in the last book.  What does that feel like and what are the mechanics of getting down the stairs with a barking dog and a little boy and toddler underfoot while juggling a newborn? Then there is, of course, that all important sentence to open the chapter, every bit as important as the final sentence closing it out. I agonize over opening sentences the most of anything within a chapter; the sentence needs to be fresh, and I have to decide what it’s going to do. Is it merely descriptive, is it serious, is it humorous, or is it meant to convey specific information? In this case I wanted something to convey the general feeling of the household, but more specifically from Pamela’s POV, because that’s the lens through which this chapter is told.


* SLEEP BEING—at present—a more precious commodity than gold in the Riordan household, Pamela found herself feeling rather homicidal toward the person who had the temerity to knock on her door early one morning three weeks after Kathleen’s birth.*


  Last I read through it to make certain it makes sense, has a nice flow to it and that I haven’t repeated details—something that is often an issue when you write out of order. I get rid of anything awkward, and touch up the details—the way a character appears, expanding on a bit of description and fixing any dialogue that doesn’t sound natural. I re-read the opening and closing few paragraphs, making certain the entry and exit of the chapter make sense and have a unified feel. In this particular case I couldn’t figure out the chapter title until it was completely done. Sometimes I’ll have a chapter title to start and then the chapter flows from there, but mostly I sift the chapter once it’s done and find that little nugget which suggests itself as the obvious title.

Last week I finished up a chapter which was purely descriptive of a passage of time in the characters’ lives—there’s no dialogue and the action is at a distance, we’re observing rather than participating. I use chapters like that to let the readers take in a deep breath, and because often all hell is about to break loose in the chapters that follow. So I need a resting place just for a beat of the story, and descriptive, narrative passages which cover a bit of time, work really well for that.


   *May swept past, June dawdled a little, and July was a glorious sweep, bringing long hours brimming with simple joys—a wild apple tree loaded with fruit, a pair of kits who travelled tumble-drunk with new life, following in the wake of their mother, a patch of wild strawberries, sun-warmed and sweet, and the utter happiness of watching the children flourish in the deep, summer light.*


So eleven pages, 3266 words, three days of writing and I have another completed chapter, and I’ve just established the groundwork for the trajectory of an entire story line.

And people wonder why big books take so long. 🙂

copyright 2019 Cindy Brandner Where Butterflies Dream