Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Anatomy of a Book – The Chapter Chart

So far I’ve talked about where story ideas come from, naming characters, dramatic story situations, title choices and brainstorming. Scroll down for more of this blog series on how I put a book together.

It’s one of the mysteries of writing: no one ever tells you the required length for a chapter. That’s in part because a chapter is as long as it needs to be to reach the end of the scene in progress. Some writers create multiple short scenes while others like working with a single long one per chapter. Some have a single POV (point of view) while others are written from the viewpoint of different characters with their scenes divided by space transitions. It’s all good. Yet it’s also true that the average length for most chapters in mainstream commerical fiction is 5000 words comprising two scenes.

This means a romance story of about 100,000 words, or 400 pages, usually covers 20 – 24 chapters. The difference between the two numbers allows for cutting some chapters shorter for dramatic emphasis or letting them run longer to complete a scene or include reaction to an event in the POV of another character.
A contemporary category romance novel of 50,000 - 60,000 words requires shorter chapters as there is less room for extraneous description or internal monologue; chapters in these run 2500 - 4000 words. Though novels of this kind can have fewer chapters and words than the average given, cut them too short and they become novellas, usually pegged at 20, 000 – 30,000 words.

For planning purposes, a longer book should begin with an inciting incident or crisis, as described in my previous post on brainstorming, then include other planned dramatic incidents or events every two or three chapters. The next to last chapter is normally dedicated to the climax, and the final chapter ties up loose ends in an exercise known as the denouement. The final paragraph, for romance novels, usually provides the traditional HEA, or Happy Ever After.
With this information in mind, it’s easy to see that a basic chapter chart for a shorter contemporary romance should look something like the MS Word document below:


Chapter 1

Inciting incident or first crisis

Chapter 2

Reaction to and discussion of incident

Chapter 3

Crisis/dramatic incident/plot point

Chapter 4

Reaction to and discussion of crisis

Chapter 5

Crisis/dramatic incident/plot point

Chapter 6

Reaction to and discussion of crisis

Chapter 7

Crisis/dramatic incident/plot point

Chapter 8

Explanation and discussion of crisis

Chapter 9

Climax of story, a larger event than previous crises

Chapter 10

Denouement and HEA

Actual events and character actions should of course replace the general descriptions. I often indicate, as well, the central action or conflict in the scenes that will take place in each chapter, and the character POV for the scenes. A longer book would differ only by adding more crises/dramatic events/plot points and including an extra chapter or two between these as needed.
Please remember that this is just a guide, a basic road map for your story. Things can easily change or be rearranged as the story progresses.

For an example of how to use a chapter chart, here’s the first entry for book 3 of my Italian Billionaires series, “The Amalfitano’s Bold Abduction”:

Chapter 1

Inciting incident, heroine's POV with possible change to hero's for final action: Traffic cop Dana Marsden’s Italian vacation is interrupted by a traffic jam on the narrow, fog-obscured Amalfi Coast road. While trying to untangle it, she rescues a cat – and a handsome Italian appears out of the mist to offer his aid. During their disagreement over who will establish order, Dana’s rental car with all her possessions goes over the cliff.

 See the general idea?

Please feel free to cut/paste the Chapter Chart above if you feel it could be useful.


Since publishing her first book at age 27, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jennifer Blake has gone on to write over 65 historical and contemporary novels in multiple genres. She brings the story-telling power and seductive passion of the South to her stories, reflecting her 8th-generation Louisiana heritage. Jennifer lives with her husband in northern Louisiana.


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