The other day, a fellow writer posted a question over on SFFWorld.com about chapters. Just what makes up a chapter? What does one put in them? When does one know a chapter begins and ends? How many words go into a chapter?
The poster’s questions got me thinking, so here we are. 🙂
I’m not a biblio-historian, but it seems to me that most books have chapters. And, it also seems that a chapter is what you make it. There is no right or wrong. Just what works and what doesn’t.
I’ve seen short chapters. Long chapters. And, reportedly, there are books with no chapters. I have come across these brilliant observations after a lifetime of reading, and you know what? As a reader, I’ve hardly ever noticed them.
Other than in George R. R. Martin‘s POV (point of view)-centric Ice and Fire Series, where he dedicates each chapter to a specific character, I don’t really notice chapters at all. I believe I would notice if there wasn’t any, because I often stop reading at the end of a chapter, because it used to be a natural breaking point in the story. But not any more.
For those writers following the adage to end a chapter on a “cliff-hanger” (a point at which your heroine is just about to get whacked, or solve a mystery, or discover her lover sleeping with mother, or whatever), I read a few paragraphs into the next chapter and then put the book down.
Either way, whether the reader-me notices the chapters or not, chapters divide the text into manageable chunks.
For me, in the beginning stages of learning how to write a novel, chapters have become convenient containers for elements of my story arc. I follow the three-act story structure with Hook, Backstory, Story Trigger, Crisis, Struggle, Epiphany, Plan, Climax, and Ending. Each of these headings illuminate either a critical point in the story or the building blocks of my story. Once I outline the basic plot and emotional arc of the story, I have to figure out how to get my characters from point A to point B. I do that with Scenes and Sequels. It can all get to be a jumbled mess, so I’ve found it helps to organize my Scenes and Sequels in sections (or chapters) that support each critical point in the story. Nifty how that works, huh?
And by doing so for me, the writer, chapters also happen to do two things for a reader:
- Build tension, and
- Pace the story.
- Maintain a narrative flow,
- Escalate narrative tension, and
- Keep readers interested.
(I’m into lists at the moment. )
Anyway, his thinking meshes with mine, which is why I linked to his blog and not another. Check it out, then come back for the exciting end of this post.
The Exciting End of This Blog Post
Yes! Chapter titles. Doesn’t that get you excited?
(If it doesn’t, you’re not really a writer.)
Also the other day, J. W. Manus posted about chapter titles or headings. She lamented that books now-a-days don’t have chapter descriptions, and that modern writers are missing opportunities to clue the reader in on memorable story elements.
Oh, I thought, but you haven’t read MY book which not only has chapter titles, but, if I had my way, illustrations!
No, that’s not true. Yet another of my grand delusions. I’d love to include illustrations for each chapter, but all I’ve done is attempt to follow in the rather large footsteps of those that I admire.
You see, in Don Quixote, Mr. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra divided his epic into Parts with numbered and titled sections. These more or less equate to our modern chapters and they are titled with some ringers. How can one forget Part I, Section VIII with a title like this:
Of the valiant Don Quixote’s success in the terrifying and never-before-imagined adventure of the windmills, with other events worthy of happy remembrance
Or Part II, Section XXV, titled:
Of the adventure of the braying and the entertaining meeting with the puppet-showman, with the memorable prediction of the prophetic ape
Sadly, my chapter titles can not compete with Cervantes’ quantity, but I feel vindicated with my quip chapter titles, because, in his latest book, Carlos Ruiz Zafon only titled his Parts (A Christmas Story, From Among the Dead, Reborn, Suspicion, and The Name of the Hero) and not his chapters.
Anyway, besides helping the reader remember what happened when and where in your story, it can help you as the writer keep track of the overall story arc. And titling your chapters also gives you an opportunity to dazzle your readers with an interesting turn of phrase, a clever (and short) anecdote, or hide a clue to a mystery.
The sky’s the limit. Make your chapters work for you.
So, how do you use chapters in your writing?