A couple of months ago I had a conversation in the checkout line with Cameron, one of my favorite checkers at the grocery store. He always asks about my writing. I said that I was working on something and trying to keep each chapter to five or six pages each. It was a change for me, since I usually wrote longer chapters.
Cameron nodded encouragingly. “Just keep at it. You’ll get it! You will!”
That got me thinking about chapters. Why chapters? What purpose do they serve? Does the length matter? Should it matter?
I went to the internet to see why it thinks books have chapters. First off, here’s Dictionary.com’s definition: “A main division of a book, treatise or the like, usually bearing a number or a title”.
(You can tell I didn’t take a very deep dive there.)
Next, I looked at some of the online fiction-writing expert sites. Somewhat to my surprise, the number one reason several of them gave for having chapters in fiction was: To give your reader a break. “Break” was used in two senses. The first was a convenient place to stop reading, a landmark to where to start when you pick up the book again. That seems like the most logical purpose for me.
The second use of “break” is like a rest break, even if the reader continues to read. A chapter ending/beginning is a cue, and moment of time for the reader to reflect and absorb information before the story continues. I like that too.
Can you tell a story without chapters? Off the top of my head, I can think of two examples that worked; The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King. In The Road, the endlessness of the prose combined with recurring incidents and themes expertly sold the dystopian future of this world, and echoed back the title. With King’s book, Dolores’s rage grew like a well-fed fire and the straight-ahead storytelling choice accentuated that.
And me, I write chapters. I just do. I think in chapters. I think in scenes, actually, but my mind combines them into convenient bundles. I use chapters:
- For a change in time.
- For a change in setting/place.
- For a POV of shift (even though I also shift POV within a chapter).
- For a change of mood.
A change of mood can also mean a dramatic moment that changes what the characters and the reader thought they knew. If The Empire Strikes Back had been a book, the line, “I am your father, Luke,” would have been a perfect chapter ending.
On those expert sites, advice ranges from “on your first draft don’t even bother with chapters, just write it,” to detailed outlining advice. Some sites prescribe chapter length (Middle Grade, for instance) or use a formula; total word count proportioned in some specific way. They also want to teach you how to craft a chapter. A chapter (in fiction) is made of scenes; each scene must have a beginning, middle and an end. Each chapter must have a beginning, a middle and an end, and every book must… yeah, you get the idea. It’s a lovely wheels-within-wheel image that doesn’t always work, but it’s probably a helpful model.
And then this guy just flat-out tells you what your chapter word-count should be.
One site suggested starting a chapter in the middle of a scene; others suggest outlining each chapter by “purpose.” Yet another suggests using a chapter to introduce the MC and primary characters—not shifting points of view, but devoting the chapter to each character. There were many other formulae and they probably all work to differing degrees of success for different authors. My approach to chapter breaks is usually more intuitive, and I’ll be the first to admit that my sense of story rhythm is affected as much by film and TV as it is books.
One thing I learned recently, by trying consciously to write a book with shorter chapters of nearly equal page length; short chapters weren’t right for the story, for a couple of reasons. It’s a complicated story. When I reread parts of it, instead of feeling like I had a “rest break,” I felt fragmented. The short chapters made me think that the tension, and the pace, were ramping up, when they weren’t—or at least not at the pace these chapter lengths were telegraphing. This book will do better with longer chapters that grow shorter as the suspense heightens (I hope) . I also ended up with 90+chapters. Who needs that? If I’m going to write a five-page-per-chapter book, it needs to be a shorter one.
With the thing I’m working on now, I’m using longer chapters again. Maybe not much longer; this book is designed to be shorter in length. Still, an average chapter so far runs to ten pages or slightly over.
Anyway—chapters. I like ‘em. That’s my report.