“Genre often dictates chapter length. There are lots of ways that writers teach their readers how to approach a work, and chapter length can certainly contribute to that teaching.”
Stephanie Noll studied fiction writing at Texas State University, where she earned her MFA. She is a frequent storyteller at The Story Department, a monthly fundraiser for the non-profit Austin Bat Cave, and has also told stories at Listen to Your Mother, Backyard Story Night, Hyde Park Story Night, and the Tellers. Stephanie has 18 years of teaching experience and works as a senior lecturer in the English department at Texas State where she recently was awarded an Excellence in Teaching award. Stephanie is the director of Old Books for New Teachers, an organization that helps first-year teachers build classroom libraries. She has written a novel about a standardized test cheating scandal at an inner-city Houston high school.
Stephanie is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Anatomy of a Chapter: Strategies for Structure Within a Novel” on Saturday, November 12 at St. Edward’s University. The class is designed for writers of fiction and memoir who are looking for practical ideas on how to organize a book length work. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: Why is it important to think about chapter structure?
Stephanie Noll: First time novelists and memoirists may struggle with how to establish pace and create a rhythm in their story. As a reader and a writer, I’ve studied chapter structure and considered how to write a chapter that pulls readers in, keeps them engaged, and creates anticipation for what will happen next.
Scribe: Do you have a preference for long or short chapters in novels that you read? In your own novel?
SN: I think genre often dictates chapter length. There are lots of ways that writers teach their readers how to approach a work, and chapter length can certainly contribute to that teaching. I do a lot of my reading at night, before going to sleep, and I get satisfaction from being able to finish a chapter in that time. Most of the chapters in my novel are approximately 15 pages in length, but when the pace of the book quickens, the chapters tend to be a little shorter.
Scribe: What are some common mistakes that you’ve seen (or even made!) in structuring novel chapters?
SN: I’m not sure if they are mistakes or a matter of personal preference, but I find that one or two page chapters leave me wanting. The writer hasn’t given me time to be in whatever space or moment they’ve established. In early drafts of my novel, my chapters tended to be shorter than they needed to be; I was jumping out of a scene before it was fully fleshed out.
Scribe: Are there any basic rules that you’d suggest for chapters?
SN: Hooks and cliffhangers are great, but unless the genre you’re writing in has the expectation that they’ll exist in every chapter, your reader may quickly tire of that style. I recently read two amazing novels for a panel that I’ll moderate at the Texas Book Festival: Kelly Luce’s PULL ME UNDER and Jung Yun’s SHELTER. When I think of the chapters in those books, I picture Russian nesting dolls. The reader enters a chapter with some expectation of what will happen, only to discover that there’s something underneath. Both writers seem to maintain that constant uncovering of new details throughout their novels, and the effect is stunning, and satisfying.
Scribe: In the class, you’ll discuss chapters from published novels. Which books will you take a look at? What makes them great models?
SN: We’ll look at Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL–it’s a favorite of mine for talking about craft. I love teaching the first chapter of Sunil Yapa’s YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF A FIST because of how he establishes character and creates tension so quickly. We’ll definitely look at the first chapter of Yun’s SHELTER–she introduces a jaw-dropping moment in the beginning that made me want to lock myself away and read the entire book in one setting. As writers, that’s the kind of reaction we’d love from a reader.
Click here to register for Stephanie’s class.
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