Chapters

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

In my previous post, Chapters?, I asked what are chapters for?  I’m half-way through writing my first novel, and I realised that I haven’t thought about chapters.  I have an outline and it is broken down into scenes, but no chapters.  This caused me to not take chapters for granted, and wonder if they are needed? How are they used?  Are they just a left over from when novels were serialised?  As readers, do we want them only because we have always had them?  Or do they have uses beyond familiarity that I need to learn how to use?

I fully expect that the end of this line of thought will bring me around to conventional wisdom, whatever that is.  But I would like to get there understanding the, “why,” better than I do now.

Jae and I were talking about it over dinner, and she made several points.   Our first reason for chapters was a place to put the book down and go pee.  Books are long, and it would be wrong to underestimate the importance of signalling this is an OK place to put the book down.  (I’ve heard the counter argument that you should do everything you can  to keep the reader from ever putting the book down, but I don’t think I’m that writer.)  This reason was also given by my friend, Mark, on Twitter.

That might be a good enough reason to have chapters, but isn’t enough to help me figure out where to put them.  Also, if you are going to have them for that reason, it would be nice to make them do more work, to achieve additional goals.

The next reason for chapters Jae pointed out,  was switching point of view.  In many books, the author switches viewpoint characters at, and only at, chapter breaks.  That is a technique that works, although it doesn’t help me for this book.  I have only one viewpoint character.  (I read a counter example recently, Gail Carriger’s, Blameless.  She switches viewpoint at scene changes, throughout the book.  Delightful book, but I did find that aspect jarring.)

The next reason for chapters we talked about was as a way to emphasise something.  This must be a big deal, because it came at the end of a chapter.  The more I think about this one, the more I like it and the more it makes sense.  I can work with that one.  (Great, one more think to think about while writing.) And if you work it that way, then you can create misdirection by dropping important stuff in the middle of a chapter, thereby de-emphasising it.  Aha, we are thinking now.

The last one we talked about at that dinner was chapter as mini-arc.  Some books are more episodic than others.  Each chapter might be a self-contained little story, and those little stories add up to a novel.  She said the Harry Potter books are built that way.  I haven’t gone and looked, but I intend to.

My friend, Matt, said they are to cause us to pause, like the purpose of a comma.  I don’t think he meant pause to go to the john, though I could be wrong.   I think he meant for  rhythm and pacing.  I know I need to work on pacing.  Chapters will be part of that.  (Damn, another thing to think about.)

I thought I had one more?  Guess not.

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