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I've recently written something about the length of in-between a short story and a novel. I've had a bunch of friends edit it, and all of them say that I should insert chapter breaks. I wrote the story in a one block of regular and then a flashback explaining the history of the characters and shining light on the plot format, so I'm not sure where to put chapters. I tried to end each little section on a cliffhanger. If I have my story written in this format, then where should I put chapter breaks? Every other, or every two, or every three were all suggestions that I've received.

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Placing chapter breaks is very subjective. There's no real rules, except perhaps to make them all approximately the same length in terms of word count. This is a guideline, however, and should be taken that way. It's mostly there to keep any chapter from feeling like it's rushed, or dragging.

Every scene should push the reader to the next scene, and each chapter to the next. It's often said a writer's goal is to keep the reader up long into the night because they can't find a place to stop reading.

I've also heard it's a good idea to end each scene on a minor cliff hanger, to propel the reader to the next scene, and end each chapter with a larger cliff hanger to keep the reader going into the next chapter, which is where most people will want to stop.

But again, it's largely subjective. Take a look at your story and see if you can find a similar number of the "little sections" you referred to, and if one of them ends on a more powerful cliff hanger. That would be a natural place for a chapter break. Grouping your sections this way should help you figure this out.

I hope that helps some!

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    This is an excellent way to break it down with the 'minor' and 'major' cliffhangers. Oct 28 '15 at 19:06
  • WRT approximately equal word count, even that's a very rarely-observed rule. As one simple example. see How to Eat Fried Worms; there are "chapters" that depending on print format are only one or two pages.
    – KeithS
    Oct 29 '15 at 20:43
  • @KeithS, that's very true, and I've read books with a single sentence as a chapter. I think Joe Hill's "Heart Shaped Box" used this technique, IIRC. Not an uncommon one; ref. Fell's answer on pacing.
    – Josh
    Oct 29 '15 at 21:57
  • James Patterson routinely has (functionally) 1 page chapters routinely and he is a best selling author. Oct 31 '15 at 11:37
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    I also remember, in New Moon, Stephanie Meyer stylistically chose to have several pages with just the month name as a chapter heading to show the passage of time as a fog of "unawareness" on Bella's part. There isn't a single word in any of those "chapters", but they show up in the TOC. That probably takes the cake.
    – KeithS
    Nov 4 '15 at 16:58
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Given your description of the story, it sounds like your readers could use breaks in the action. Everything @Josh said in his answer applies, so I'll just talk a bit about pacing.

There is a rhythm to every story. It's created by the prose, by the dialogue, and by breaks in the action. You know the pulse of your story better than anyone, so use breaks to give the readers a chance to catch their breath. A chapter break or a typographical divider (like an asterisk) can also give them a chance to pause and think about what just happened. You can have as many "sections" within a chapter as you need.

On a side note, I'm doing much the same thing right now with this answer. When I've suspected that a paragraph has done its work, I move on to the next one. This is more a courtesy to the reader than a rule.

Two pitfalls when breaking up a story:

  1. Too few breaks, and the reader won't know if they can pause their reading to use the bathroom or mow the lawn
  2. Too many breaks, and the story begins to feel frenetic

For an curious look at how an author broke up a story in an interesting and highly intentional fashion, check out Zeroville by Steve Erickson. His "chapters" are numbered from 1–250, then back down from 250–0. And some of them are only one word long.

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  • Oh, nicely stated, @Fell! Great job there
    – Josh
    Oct 28 '15 at 19:27

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