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 http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://magicalwords.net http://www.DavidBCoe.com
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