The mechanics of chapterization

Last time we talked about chapter breaks from a story standpoint. Now let’s look at the mechanics of how to do it.

I don’t recommend breaking your book out into chapters until you’re in at least your second draft and maybe even later. If you put chapter breaks in early, you may just wind up replacing and renumbering them if you move scenes around while editing. So wait until you’re sure the structure is solidly in place. Truth is, chapterizing can be the last thing you do before submitting the manuscript.

novel chapter length

Photo © Leks_Laputin • iStockphoto

You will have some high-tension scenes that end on cliffhangers or hooks that will obviously make for great page-turning chapter ends. Go ahead and mark those as you go by putting in a page break and chapter heading without a number.

In Microsoft Word, use the Insert > Break command, and choose Section Break (Next Page). This means some of your chapters will start on even-numbered pages, which would appear on the left-hand page in a print edition. If you’re seeking traditional publication, you don’t have worry about this as your publisher or page designer will change Next Page to Odd Page if that’s their in-house preference.

In print editions, chapters traditionally started on odd-numbered pages, which are on the right-hand side. That means sometimes the facing left page was blank. Some publishers, to save paper and reduce costs, have stopped doing it that way, and use left-hand chapter starts. If you are self-publishing, you can choose whichever method you prefer. If you want right-hand-only chapter starts, use Section Break (Odd Page).

Manuscript formatting guides used to call for starting new chapter pages one-third of the way down the page. Most editors don’t require that anymore, but if you want to do it, adjust the depth of the header rather than inserting paragraph returns into the text. Extra returns in the text will annoy your page designer and will mess up your Kindle conversion, too. For more about formatting, see “What your typing teacher didn’t tell you about manuscript formatting.”

Aim for chapters of approximately fifteen pages each, give or take five pages. So in your mostly finished manuscript, go to page 15, and then look forward and back to find a scene break. Put the chapter break there. Then add fifteen pages to that. So let’s say your first chapter break actually ended up at page 12. Go to page 27 and repeat the process. You’ll wind up with chapters ranging from 10 to 20 pages long. Remember to take into account your previously marked cliffhangers. Sometimes you’ll want to place a break so it’s about halfway between two cliffhangers.

Of course, this is a guideline, not a rule, so don’t let it confine you. I’ve noticed a trend toward shorter chapters in recent years, so if you prefer that, you can choose a smaller average chapter length. The story, not arbitrary numbers, should dictate the placement of your chapter breaks.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

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