My style of writing is - I think - more investigative into characters and what drives them. I think however that this could be problematic for readers because nothing major happens in every single chapter. I feel like a lot of writers suggest just moving right through the story but I am not sure that I can do that with my story without it becoming overly simplistic. I am writing a story with a world that has a lot of details, so I'm not sure that I can really just move through it without everything becoming to 'easy' for my characters. What do you think?

  • You might try James Michener. He would spend about 80,000 words doing character development and then move into the story. His books were long, but he was a frequent bestseller. You're not inventing the wheel. If you were to read one, I'd pick The Source, The Drifters, or Alaska
    – Stu W
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 21:47

9 Answers 9


That's up to you. Whether you decide to advance the plot in each chapter or not is entirely your call. Your readers may disagree with your decision, but frankly that's their problem. Ultimately, what you write is yours. If your goal is to sell copies, then by all means appeal to the common denominator. If your goal is to convey meaning, not everybody is going to "get" it anyway.

Personally, I actually find that almost always, my favorite parts are the parts where nothing happens in the common interpretation of plot advancement, but instead we see exposition. For example, in Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery, there's a part where, in the course of the titular heist, the main character decides to run atop the train, and jump between cars.

Crichton breaks what many readers would implicitly consider a pretty important rule: he tells the reader something exciting is happening, but then takes a pretty lengthy unexciting detour before resolving the tension. He goes into detail about why this character decided that running on top of the train was not a terrible idea. Crichton explains concepts of fluid dynamics, which actually shed light on real-world phenomena that lots of readers have probably wondered about (and in fact, I ended up asking my high school physics teacher about it and learned about all kinds of stuff as a result). Then he explains that the character's application of these concepts is fundamentally flawed and it actually really was a terrible idea after all.

It's by far my favorite part of the book. It could have been an entire chapter and I would have loved every word of it, even with Mike "leaving me hanging" on the action. Maybe some other readers didn't care and were put off by it but, like I said above, that's their problem. If Crichton had left it out for their sake, I wouldn't have enjoyed the book nearly as much.

So, if you feel like there's a way you can add meaning, don't be afraid to spend time (pages? chapters?) not advancing the plot to do it.


That depends.

That depends on whether you want to write a good book. The key rule of Strunk& White's The Elements of Style is Omit needless words! Presumably this goes for chapters too. If you have a chapter you don't need, it should not exist. Burn it and throw the ashes into the ocean or outer space.

However, the definition of "needing" a chapter is not solely based on plot. Characters and setting are important too. So stick by this folden rule: If a chapter or segment does not advance the plot or develop the characters, cut it. If you find a segment that advances only worldbuilding, cut it and integrate said worldbuilding into other, more interesting parts (in other words, Show don't Tell). The ideal chapter advances all three--plot, characters, setting--equally and at the same time.


Define chapter where nothing happens?

Even if there are chapters that do not have a lot of action, perhaps a group is sitting talking, or people are simply walking down a side walk observing things, etc, each chapter needs to have a purpose.

Seeing your explanation in the comments, I believe what you are thinking about is what some call a "filler chapter." Filler chapters serve as important transitions from one major plot point from the next, and they sometimes don't really have much going on. But, they do a lot for the purpose of the novel, sometimes teaching you about the characters, the setting, adding depth to the work.

Major plot points do not need to happen in each chapter, but there should not be any chapters that can be omitted without consequence.


What do you mean by "nothing happens"?

If you mean "nobody gets killed, there are no car chases, and nothing blows up", then certainly you can have chapters where "nothing happens". There are lots of books that have no action of that sort at all.

I suspect you mean something more like, "there are chapters that are entirely the heroine considering what she wants to do next". If that's the case, then of course that's totally legitimate and may be very interesting.

The question is not, "Does this chapter have action in the sense of people engaging in vigorous physical activity?", but rather, "Are the things that happen in this chapter likely to be interesting to a reader?" If, after honestly considering what you have written, your answer is, "No, this is boring and irrelevant", then it's not a good chapter. Throw it away or rewrite. But if the answer is, "If they care what's going on inside this character's head -- and they should be because I've tried to build up psychological conflict or character development -- then yes, this chapter should be interesting", then great.

Of course what you find interesting and what a potential reader finds interesting may not be the same thing. You might fight an account of a character struggling to decide whether to wear a red dress to the party or a blue dress to be a fascinating subject, while someone else would think that's boring, "just pick one already". But that's a big piece of what writing is all about: trying to come up with a story that will interest the reader, or at least some number of potential readers.


I think your suspicions that this approach may be problematic for readers is correct. However, it is entirely possible to have an investigation into character motivation that still doesn't have chapters where nothing major happens.

What exactly do you mean by chapters where nothing major happens? In this case, whether something is major or not is defined by how it affects a character, not how it affects the world. Typically, events cause a character to act, and your investigation can enter at that point, letting us know the interior aspects of a character.

You also mention that your story takes place in a world with a lot of details, but I'm struggling to see how that makes things easy for your characters. World details ground the character and give the readers context. Difficulty may arise from that, but it's not directly related.

I feel like more specificity may yield better answers.

  • You're right to ask for more details so I'll try my best to provide them. So pretty much by 'chapters where nothing major happens' I mean to say nothing happening in the way of leading the character on her journey to discover the heart of the mystery she's trying to solve. Things happen in the way of her meeting people that will help of course - and things in her personal life, but nothing so direct as to be her taking a big step towards the discovery, its more like segways that will eventually lead her there. And I'm not sure i it really comes across as important overall.. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 17:52
  • What I mentioned about the details... the story takes place in a fantasy world for half of the narrative. I feel like if I just get on with the steps towards her discovering the heart of the matter without having her face other issues (that might not be so directly related to the conflict) it comes across as far too easy for her to figure out. I guess, I don't want the details of the world to become simplified by not supplying her enough conflicts to resolve before she can move forward to the main issue. Am I making sense? haha Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 18:00
  • Both of your replies are helpful. I'm pondering how to improve my answer based on them.
    – TriskalJM
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 20:35

Yes, there must be substance to every chapter, or else what is the point from including it in the book? Padding?

Do not mistake things happening though, with action. A chapter (or scene) can be about a soldier in a battle; the soldier's musings in the hospital tent, after taking an injury; his emotional struggles and major decision he made on the march back home; and an exploration of the capital once the army reaches it.


Does something need to happen in every chapter? Yes.

Something needs to happen in every paragraph.

Something needs to happen in every sentence.

The story must advance. A story needs more to advance than physical action by the characters, however. It is the telling that needs to advance. Actions are merely one device for advancing story. Description, reflection, and conversation can all advance the story. One the other hand, action does not always advance the story.

Description, reflection, conversation, action, and all the other parts of human life are matter for story. The right use of any of them advances the story and the wrong use of any of them retards the story. Action may seem like a easy and reliable way to advance story, but story is about the arc of a character and you can have action galore without advancing the arc of a character. Thus many big action blockbusters fall flat, while many quieter slower-paces movies become hits.

Every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence must propel character along the arc of story. How is entirely a matter of the nature of the story itself.


I think you are wrong in thinking that nothing happens in your chapters. As you said, you are focusing more on the characters, and when you develop your characters, there is something "happening".

It shouldn't be underestimated, chapters to let the reader delve in the mind of the character. It creates a much needed sense of connection, and not only that, but a deeper understanding of who they are and what they think.

A book is not an action movie. You can take your time. Describe thoughts, describe things, describe scenes. It's your imaginary playground, and it is your job to populate it with as much depth as you find necessary.

You see, i am Brazilian, and our classic literature has a lot of this sort of thing. We have entire chapters used to describe how beautiful the love interest of the main characters. We have poems describing the beauty of the arms of a beautiful woman. The arms for god's sake!

There is a chapter in a brazilian book called "Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas" or, as the english translation goes "The Postumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas". In the book there is an entire chapter where the main character describes his delirium. One entire chapter, nothing happening story-wise, not even deepening the character in any way. Just describing his delirium, describing what he saw and thought. I'm going to translate the first paragraph of this chapter, because i think it that what the narrator-protagonist says sums up well what my point is:

I believe no one has described his own delirium yet. So i'll do it myself, and let science thank me! If the reader is not keen on the contemplation of such mental phenomena, then by all means, skip this chapter, head straight back to the narrative. But, no matter how little curious you are, i believe it is interesting to know what was going on in my head for 20 or 30 minutes.

Of course, that is a rough translation, used only to get the point across. Yes, some people will find it boring, but no matter how uninterested you are, is always good to see what goes on in the mind of the character.


No, you don't need to have a major plot point in every chapter, in fact, in my own opinion, having a couple of "break" chapters, that focus only on the thoughts of your characters make them feel way more alive.


My answer is no, I don't think something "needs to happen". Instead, what you need is to be interesting. Five minutes online is all that's needed to find thousands of stories which stink despite having much happen. Conversely, my favorite author, Dostoevsky, wrote many, lengthy scenes where nothing "happened" because it was all dialogue.

While any one story won't interest everyone, a good story will interest some people and a bad story will interest no one. You should aim to be interesting to a specific audience rather than to have something "happen" in every scene.

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