Thursday, April 12, 2018

What is a Chapter?

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Over the years I have read writing advice books and attended numerous courses and panel discussions on writing, but I don't remember a single discussion about what constitutes a novel chapter. Yet, I view the chapter as the unit of my novels. When I sit down at my computer, I don't aim to write x number of words or spend y number of hours at my desk or complete z scene that day. My writing goal is to finish the next chapter, or get as far along in it as I can. Ideally, I like to start a chapter and write it to the end in one swoop, however long that takes.  

My focus on the chapter in novel structure has led me to wonder, what is a chapter? Is the concept of the chapter studied so little because anything goes and there are no rules? Today I'll share my random thoughts on novel chapters as a writer and reader. I'd be curious to hear your ideas.

A chapter can be any length, from one word to a whole book, that is, a chapter-less novel. The only novel with no chapters I recall reading was short, about 150 pages. Evidently writers and readers like breaks in a long story. The most effective super-short chapter I've read was in the novel Last Orders by Graham Swift. The story involved a young man travelling with his father's four drinking buddies to dispose of his father's ashes in the sea. The chapters alternated between the viewpoints of the five characters. After several chapters of his father's buddies going on about the old days, we turn the page to the son's chapter, where he simply states Old farts. I found this hilarious and it expressed the son's frustration with his travelling companions better than 2,000 words could have done.

Chapter lengths in an individual novel can be consistent or wildly varied. I've written both kinds. Several years ago I wrote a suspense novel with five viewpoint characters. Each time a voice changed I started a new chapter and they couldn't all have equivalent amounts to say when their turns came. But, as a writer, I prefer consistent chapter length for pacing, so that high points in the story arrive at more or less even intervals. As a reader, I get more comfortable with a book when I know how long the next chapter will be. While it's good to shake readers up with story content, novels tend to work best when the reader is unaware of structure. Now I'm revising the suspense novel and combining voices in chapters, with scene breaks, making the chapters more even. I don't know if this will help the pacing, but cutting the numbers of chapters in half saves trees by using fewer pages.    

When the novel changes viewpoint, is it best to start a new chapter or break to a new scene? Not necessarily. Many successful novels fluctuate between points of view within a chapter, scene or paragraph. But my personal preference is for a new scene, if not chapter break, before a viewpoint change because I want my readers to be solidly in the head of a particular person and feel along with him or her.

What about titles for chapters? As a reader I either ignore them or find them clever. As a writer, I have enough trouble coming up with one title for a book, never mind fifteen or thirty more. If I ever go that route, I expect some of my chapter titles will add to the story experience, while other titles will be there simply to conform to the pattern I've set. The same with quotes and images at a chapter's start.

Now we come to the meat. I tend to view each chapter in my books as a kind of short story within the whole. Something needs to change in the course of the chapter. I think of each chapter as building to a mini-climax, which, hopefully, propels the reader to turn the page. That's why the ending is the most important part of each chapter. A great cliffhanger ending is a demand to keep reading, although continuous cliffhangers might start to feel melodramatic and manipulative. So I save my true cliffhangers for a few choice spots and try for intriguing endings with the other chapters.

A trick of some writers is to cut a dialogue mid-scene. For instance, Jenny tells Billy, "I'm pregnant" and the chapter ends. The next chapter starts with Jenny continuing, "What are we going to do about it?" This trick gets me to turn the page and contributes to suspense, but it also feels like cheating. As with scene breaks, I think there needs to be a gap of at least a few minutes from one chapter to the next, or a change of place or point of view.

Of course, these are all my opinions, derived from my particular reading and writing idiosyncrasies. There are no rules for novel chapters, but with their importance to a book's structure, I say let's bring them out of the shadows and give them a little more attention.


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