Why Divide Your Book Into Chapters?

Thanks to regular visitor and commenter Daniel Davis for again coming up with a question to get us started with this week’s post.  And before I get to Daniel’s question, let me add that we welcome your questions and suggestions for posts you’d like to see.  We often scour our brains for ideas that we think might interest you.  Input from all of you on topics you’d like to see us address as a group would be enormously helpful.  We can’t promise that we’ll get to all of them, or that we’ll address them immediately, but we certainly will do our best.
Daniel’s question, which showed up in a comment to Misty’s Thursday post (also inspired by a question from Daniel) had to do with chapters and whether we tend to split our work into sections.  Daniel also wanted to know if there was a marketing/industry imperative to dividing our work into chapters, and he observed correctly that there is quite a bit of variation in this area from author to author. 
As someone who writes almost exclusively in fantasy, I will leave discussion of variations between genres to one of my colleagues.  Still, even within our own genre, the differences among authors are remarkable.  In fact . . .  Okay, I’ll be right back. 
Back.  A couple of examples:  I checked one book that is 623 pages long (paperback).  It’s 14 chapters plus a prologue.  But each chapter is divided into numbered sections (some chapters have only three or so; others have as many as nine).  I checked three books that are over 700 pages long and found that they were divided into 39, 52, and 60 chapters respectively.  One SF book on my shelf is only 500 pages long, but has 65 chapters plus a prologue and epilogue.  Then there’s TIGANA, my favorite fantasy novel.  It’s 673 pages long in its paperback version, and it has 20 chapters plus a prologue and epilogue, but each chapter has one or two section breaks indicated simply by an extra space between lines of text.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  There’s a lot of variation.
One thing I don’t see is a book with no chapter breaks at all.  The divisions aren’t always called “chapters.”  Sometimes they’re “parts” or “books”.  Sometimes they’re not numbered, but rather titled, or identified simply by the name of the point of view character, as in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.  But every book I can find on my shelves, and certainly every book I’ve ever written, does have some system of division and organization.
Why is this?  Well, here I can only speak for myself as a writer and a reader.  I like chapter breaks.  And though I tend toward the Guy Gavriel Kay model mentioned above with respect to TIGANA (fewer chapters, subdivided into shorter sections) that in no way diminishes my belief that subdivisions within a novel are (counterintuitively) crucial to maintaining narrative flow, escalating narrative tension, and keeping readers interested.  Let’s take each of these in turn. 
Maintaining Narrative Flow:  As I say, it seems counterintuitive that breaks in the narrative should help maintain the flow of a story.  But I find it’s true for a number of reasons.  In cases where a novel is written from multiple points of view, chapter breaks allow an author to switch perspectives without confusing readers.  In my opinion, shifting POV without some obvious visual cue to the reader (a section break, a new chapter, a new “part”) will leave readers scratching their heads, or thumbing back through a book to figure out where the perspective changed.  Chapter breaks give that visual clue, so that readers can follow POV changes with ease.  What about in a book with only a single first or third person POV?  In this case, chapter breaks are useful for signaling a shift or jump forward in time.  For instance, in the book I’ve just completed, my character often has to make his way from one scene to the next on foot.  He lives in an early renaissance city and he’s not wealthy enough to have a carriage or a horse.  He walks.  So I can describe every trip he makes from one home or business to the next.  Or I can say “He walked from Fred’s house to Barney’s house.”  Or I can end a chapter at a key point in his conversation with Fred, and then pick up the action when he’s at Barney’s place.  In this case, I’ve kept the narrative tight and I’ve avoided what can be clunky scene transitions.
Escalating Narrative Tension:  Part of picking that “key point” at which to end a chapter is knowing how to ratchet up the tension in your story.  There’s more to breaking your novel into parts than simply avoiding difficult, boring, or confusing transitions.  There are times when we want to use a chapter break to leave our POV character in a difficult spot, or to add punch to a crucial revelation.  There are also times when we want to use a chapter break to add a humorous touch to a story.  I usually try to avoid using television or movie analogies to help with writing, but in this case the comparison works:  Think of your favorite TV drama — Buffy, CSI, The West Wing, whatever.  Those moments when they break for commercial are usually fraught with peril for your favorite character, or else they come just as something of vital importance has just been — or is about to be — revealed.  That’s how chapter breaks should be used.  Sometimes, in multiple POV stories, that’s a great time to cut away to a different narrative thread.  In a single POV story, you can cut right back to the same scene, or you begin the next chapter with a relevant and important flashback that draws out the suspense and will add meaning to what the readers have just learned or are about to learn.  Either way, the break in narrative actually amplifies the tension you’ve created.
Keeping Readers Interested:  This, of course, is the point of everything we do as writers.  To my mind, this one encompasses what I’ve already said, plus it brings in one other important element.  Anything that ups the tension and maintains the flow of a story will keep readers turning the pages.  Obviously.  But as a reader, I have to admit that I also like to reach the end of a chapter.  If I have to interrupt my reading, I like to find a natural stopping place, one that the author has provided for me.  Chapter breaks are our way of saying to a reader “Okay, if you really have to go back to your life — if the dog needs walking or the kids need to be fed or that grease fire in the kitchen REALLY needs to be put out — this is a good place to pause and do those things.”  As an author, I want to make it as easy as possible for my reader to take up my book again and jump right back into my story, without having to struggle to find his or her place.  This, in a way, is where the TV/Movie parallels break down.  A movie is two hours, maybe three.  A person can get through it in a single sitting.  A book of any length takes several times as long.  People need breaks.  (Actually, a good TV series IS like a book; Buffy, season three is like a book with 22 chapters.  But watching all 22 episodes without any break at all would be a bit much…) 
My point in all of this is that a novel-length work of fiction has to be divided up to make it digestable.  For me as a reader, chapters that are too long can become a chore to read.  Sure, a long chapter here or there is fine.  But a book without any breaks at all would exhaust me.  So I find a way to split up my novels.  And then I find ways to make those divisions work to my advantage as a storyteller.  There are lots of different approaches to organizing our divisions.  We can call them chapters or books or parts.  We can number or not; we can give each chapter titles or not.  Like any other writing tool, the chapter break can be used in a myriad of ways.  But one way or another, I believe it should be used.
David B. Coe

29 comments to Why Divide Your Book Into Chapters?

  • Definitely agree. Need the breaks. I tend to read in short bursts, 20 minutes here, 30 minutes there, and I need the natural breaks, as well as chapters that aren’t 40 pages long. My suspense novel has a large number of chapters. Most of them are pretty short, under ten pages, and some under five. It also goes back and forth between the two protaganists, basically switching off between scenes. Different sort of feeling though with suspense, because pacing and tension tend to drive these stories along, and shorter works better for that in my opinion. In my chapters are still fairly short, but I’ve also got multiple characters I deal with. There are two major plot lines going on simultaneously, and other important characters that get air time. It’s more of an ensemble story. I personally like shorter chapters, which is probably a function of how I tend to read. I’m the sort that will thumb ahead to see how long the next chapter is to see if I have time to read it. I would guess that I’m not the only person who does this too.

  • TIGANA’s my favorite fantasy novel, too. 🙂

  • As a writer, I organize my books into chapters, mostly because it’s what I’m used to. I never really considered doing it any other way.

    As a reader, I was one of those kids who would read until all hours of the night. Mama always had to come in and make me stop, and having a chapter break was a wonderful way to steal just a few more minutes. “Please, can’t I finish the chapter?”

    She could never refuse that. 😀

  • Then you have folks like Terry Pratchett who (at least in the books I have read) doesn’t even use chapters. He uses mroe like narrative breaks rather than well demarced chapters.

    There is a wide range….

  • Jim, I suppose tastes are as divergent as techniques. As a reader, I don’t like short chapters. I don’t like them too long either, but I find that really short chapters make a book feel choppy. That’s just me, of course. But it does inform the way I write.

    Catie, it is simply an amazing book.

    Misty, I like it! Chapter breaks as a form of complicity in a child’s defiance of parental authority. I shouldn’t approve, of course. Now that I’m a Dad, I’m on the other side of that power struggle. But yeah, I did that, too.

    Mark, right. There are as many ways to do this as there are authors writing books. But even in your example, Pratchett does have some form of break in the narrative, right?

  • Tom

    I’ve never read Pratchett, but I did read a fantasy novel in the mid-80s with no chapter breaks. There were only scene breaks. I was a third of the way through before I realized it. I have to say, I was a bit taken aback and amazed, then forgot about it and continued reading.

    I’ve always written 20 – 25 chapters, with multiple scenes within most chapters. It was the way most of the writers I read did it, so I did it too. I’ve also noted some writers make every scene break a chapter break, even if the chapter is only a single paragraph. I’ve never done that, but it didn’t bother me either.

  • Since I write out of order, I tend to gravitate to scenes that then cumulate into chapters, so having chapter breaks is a natural process for me. 🙂 I also use them in the historical fiction to give a setting and date because that’s the best way for a novel that spans several years with times in between where nothing important happens. Sharon Kay Penman uses the same method.

  • Tom, you sound like a very accommodating reader. As a writer, I like that! For some people these things don’t matter much. For others they can make the difference between loving a book and hating it. You never really know how something you do is going to be received by your readership. I know what I like and so I write accordingly.

    Gabriele, I did something similar with my Forelands and Southlands books. I used chapter breaks to signal changes in setting and time, which was necessary with the multistrand story I was writing. Another useful benefit of chapter breaks.

  • Keeping plot strands sorted is another good use. When I change from Roderic to Alastair, I’ll have a new chapter. But while I in the Fantasy novel simply say: Chapter 3 (or maybe I’m going to use chapter titles like I do on my snippet blog, then it would be An Uneasy Peace), in the hist fic novels, I use something like:

    Chapter 25
    (Rome, late September 9 AD)

    Since the scene before that took place in Germany, that should save the reader some confusion.

  • Cool, now, I don’t really keep chapters in mind when I’m writing, but I do have breaks in the narrative, that’s the best thing I can think to call them, narrative breaks. They are kind of a double or triple carriage return sometimes with a little dot or asterisk there to show a switch, especially if it’s a character switch. However, I don’t really consider those classic chapter breaks; classic being chapter 1, chapter 2, etc, split up in 10 to 20 or so page blocks. These narrative breaks can happen anywhere where there’s either a switch in perspective, a switch in character, or time passage, like David mentioned. Still, they can happen in 10 pages in a novel or they can happen after 5 paragraphs. I’ve seen a chapter, on rare occasion that was 1 page long that was not the prologue, but those are actually jarring to me and just seem needless.

    I agree that chapter breaks are good places to stop when you want to, say, go to bed. However quite frequently they have the opposite effect on me. Meaning, they frequently, as David said, end on a cliffhanger, making me want to read that one more chapter. 😉 Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s counterproductive if I want to, say, sleep.

    I don’t have a problem usually stopping anywhere in the narrative where there’s a lull in the action when I’m reading. Sometimes it happens automatically when I nod off. 😉 That’s usually not indicative of the quality of the author’s writing, but more my crummy lassitude where if I stop and relax for more than 15 minutes I’ll begin to nod off. But where were I? My mind’s all wandery today. I don’t really need a chapter break to stop, ofttimes a narrative break will suffice. The book I’m reading by Angus Wells has both chapter breaks and narrative breaks and I tend to stop more frequently in those narrative breaks.

    Now, as far as the rare books I’ve read where I said they didn’t have chapter breaks, I was talking the classic chapters. It did have a Book 1, Book 2, Book 3 split, and plenty of narrative breaks. But these, in my mind aren’t what I would call chapter breaks. They do help to set the tension level and indeed, would be the most likely for me to use in my own writing.

    Truthfully, I probably could write chapters into my stories, but it would have to be after I’ve written the novel, because I think in action and drama and tension, but not within the context of classic chapters. In other words, I’m not thinking in, “okay, what happens in this chapter, what happens in that chapter.” My thought processes and sequences just sort of order themselves without having to use the chapter to structure them. That’s the best way I can think to explain it at the moment. My brain’s still a bit sleep fogged for some reason. I would have to go in after the novel was written and find logical places in all the narrative breaks and add full chapter breaks.

    I was actually looking for things online that talked about authors who didn’t use the classic chapter break or break with that convention, but of course, couldn’t find them and I can’t actually remember the ones I’ve read that didn’t use them. However, I did catch this line from a Wiki that said that some novels of great length didn’t use chapters. It said many, but it’s not the many that I’ve read. 😉

    And thank you for the Pratchett reference Mark, I’d forgotten that, and that’s exactly the difference I’m talking about. I wasn’t trying to infer not using breaks at all, just classic chapters.

    Now, as far as classic chapters go, do you think that’s easier to sell or does it matter? Do you think that a person who has written in 50 chapters has an easier time selling a novel than a writer that’s maybe structerd a novel in 3-4 “books” or, thinking in movie/stageplay format for now, four Acts, with narrative breaks throughout? Or even an author who has only narrative breaks? I would think as long as it’s structured well throughout it shouldn’t matter which method is used, but I’m not a publisher or editor, so don’t know what’s taboo.

  • Thanks for the clarification, Daniel. I think this has been a useful discussion, so I’m glad you raised the questions. To answer your questions at the end of your comment: I don’t think that the use of one form of partitioning system or another is going to do much to hurt (or for that matter, help) with the contracting of a book. If the organizational system for your novel works; if it makes sense, if it allows for narrative flow and tension, if it clarifies place and time and context for your reader, yoiur book will sell on its merits regardless of the system. On the other hand, if your partitioning is so quirky or obtuse that it actually hinders the reader, then obviously that’s going to be a problem. But from what you describe that’s not an issue here. But you’ll have to see what an editor has to say. If it’s a problem, he/she will let you know. In my experience, they’re not a shy lot….

  • Another advantage of chapters is the occasional short-fiction sale as one sells a chapter that can be read stand-alone, both for (so-so) money but also to generate interest in a forthcoming book.

  • Happy to be able to contribute. 😀

  • Also, I can see the use of a chapter as a selling point. Like if an editor says, send me your first chapter. My response would invariably be, err…uh…chapter? At that point I’d probably just find a good break point in the narrative breaks about 10 pages in and send that.

  • Wade Thomas Markham, III

    My biggest conundrum is, as a newbie writer, is when I have to decide to break a book into two books or more considering my chapters are huge and the publishers want a new writer’s book to be within 100k range. What am I supposed to do? Do I write the book and say hell with it? Or do I try to tame the book while I’m writing it?

  • Excellent point, Steven, and certainly something for writers to consider if they’re looking to break into the business.

    Daniel, yes, that would be the way to approach it, if you’re asked for chapters. But you should ask how many chapters they want (even if you don’t work in chapters) and then adjust the size of your sample accordingly. If they ask for a chapter, send 20 pages. If they ask for 3, send 50 or so. Ten is too few.

  • Wade, that is a great set of questions, and is something we should cover maybe in next week’s posts, unless one of my colleagues wants to tackle it sooner. The short, glib, not-so-helpful answer is that you have to balance your need to write the book you want to write, with the expectations of an industry that is looking for shorter, leaner books. Trying to tame the book (as you put it) as you write is a good approach. When I broke into the business 200k fantasies were the norm. Now epic is down to 120-140k and urban is closer to 100k. Who knows? If your book is brilliant you might sell 200k to a willing editor. But you are putting yourself at a disadvantage starting at that length.

  • QUOTE: If they ask for a chapter, send 20 pages. If they ask for 3, send 50 or so. Ten is too few.

    Cool. Wasn’t sure how many it would be for a single chapter. I’ve seen all kinds of sizes in chapters. 🙂

    Not that I couldn’t sell a scene in 10 pages, unless it’s double spaced or 1.5 spaced, that is. 😉

  • David, book length is something I know I’m going to struggle with. My back story I’ve been working on is at 96,000 words and I’m on the penultimate scene.

    However, this is a sparse rough draft. When I get back to this story later on to see how I can turn it into a publishable manuscript I can’t see how it will come in under 175,000 words.

  • CE — My advice would be (and again, this is a topic that would make for a good post….) write the thing without worrying about the length. It’s much easier to edit for length later than it is to write to a certain word count. Once its complete, you can figure out how to make it a more marketable length.

  • David, you nailed this!
    Early in my career I wrote really long chapters (20+ pages). Then I started writing short chapters (10+ pages). It all depended on the voice of the book I was writing, and the ebb and flow of the book. Now I write chapter length of 15-ish pages, which appeals to the ebb and flow of my current writing style. Whatever works…

  • Thanks, Faith. As my books have gotten shorter, my chapters have, too. And I totally agree that genre is a determinative factor. I write longer chapters for epic fantasy than I do for urban or the new shiny.

  • Mikaela

    I always forget about chapter breaks when I write my first drafts, but I put them in during the revision.

  • That works, Mikaela. As long as they get in there, it doesn’t matter when in the process it happens.

  • I really enjoy how whats-his-name Patterson uses short punchy chapters to move his narrative along at a break neck pace. Where I would “break” into a separate scene, he breaks for a new chapter – and it works! For him.

    Clancy or Grisham have longer chapters with multiple “scenes”. I think they determine their chapters by certain “milestones” in the story, very much like commercials on TV, they move you ahead cause you want to see where this story is going. (5 times out of 10 the first “scene” in the next chapter is not the continuation you desired so you have to read even more.

    I use YWriter to structure my novels and have fallen into a set of “scenes” that are grouped together into “chapters”. Although I don’t strive for consistentcy, I do see that longer “chapters” seem to drag and ususally benefit from being cut up into shorter more focused units.

  • Thanks for the comment, Joseph. The variation in this respect among successful authors is quite stunning. As I’ve said, the short, short chapters don’t work for me as a reader, so as I writer I tend toward somewhat longer ones (though not too long, because as you say, they can drag). We all have to find what feels right for the style of our particular book.

  • I know I’m coming to the conversation late (via Twitter link from @keikomushi), but wanted to chime in with my experiences & preferences:

    For my first 5 novels, I didn’t write them with chapter breaks at all, only appropriate “narrative breaks” with some extra spaces & a few wingdings/stars when time and/or setting was shifting, as you’ve already covered. My 2nd novel, Dragons’ Truth, when I put it together for print, I did end up dividing into chapters – because I thought it would work better that way for a YA audience – but some were very short & some ended up a bit long, because I hadn’t been writing with them in mind. It was a bit of a kludge.

    And then I started podcasting my books (now also via my own feed, but first just at podiobooks.com), and that’s when the importance of chapters became really obvious to me. For podcasting, about 25-35 minutes of audio per episode is a good goal. Partially because a lot of people’s commute is about that long, and partially because most of the other podcasts are that long – but I think both of those are true because a lot of people’s attention spans for listening to text are about half an hour long. Some people prefer to wait & listen to the full book at once, but a lot of people are expecting half an hour a week.

    Half an hour of audio translates to about 5,000 words.

    So then, as I was writing my latest novel, Forget What You Can’t Remember, I was not only building scenes with the audio version in mind, I was writing the whole thing in chapters of roughly equal length, so it would be easier to serialize. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re podcasting or publishing serially in a zine or on a blog, having your text broken into all-roughly-equally-sized chunks makes it easier to work with and easier to consume. With FWYCR, I’m putting up a couple chapters a week as a podcast, and I could easily sell it by the chapter through shortcovers or dailylit without changing anything.

    I can’t wait to see what my next novel comes out like…

  • Thanks for the comment, Teel. Very interesting. I hadn’t even considered this from the perspective of podcasts/audio books. But of course in those cases chapters — and chapters of similar size — would be essential.

  • One thing I’ve noticed about audio books though in the past several years I’ve been listening to them. They very rarely actually end each CD on a chapter. Nor do they typically end a track on a chapter.

    But Podcasts could be a lot more like the radio shows of old and something more “serialized” could definitely be preferable, ending on a definitive stopping point each time. Make for a more fun listening experience too.