Writing advice, Writing and Editing

A Question of Chapters

I have always been a questioner. Know that four year old child who always asks “why?” Mom and Dad tell themselves it is just a phase and the child will eventually grow out of it. (Whether that’s a good or bad thing is the subject for another discussion). I never really grew out of that phase and believe it helps my quest to improve (and maybe someday perfect?) my writing quest. I question everything. Is this really as we are led to believe, or it something else entirely that most of us would just rather ignore? That sort of thing. Why did this particular author choose to begin their novel with this particular sentence, this particular word?

One of the questions I’ve been asking lately is this: why are modern novels broken up into chapters? What is the purpose of chapters?

I did a little research. According to one source, the chapter traces back to the very introduction of the printing press in western culture. Before the press, nearly all writing was done on scrolls, either papyrus or some form of tanned hide, such as parchment, vellum, etc. Each scroll contained about 2000 to 5000 words. When the press began issuing printed books, some of the first were collections of the existing writings. Each scroll was listed separately as a “chapter” or “book,” (such as the Book of Daniel, or the books of Dante’s Inferno).

As the novel and non-fiction book was evolving into being across Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the writers imitated the existing form and divided their works into chapters and the tradition was born. Today, hundreds of years later, we can pick up nearly any novel published today and it is still divided into chapters.

Again, my question: why? What purpose is served by dividing a novel into chapters?

My completely unscientific survey of literature revealed several possible uses for dividing a fiction work into chapters. Nearly all of them are structural in nature.

Signal a change in subject.

In Stephen King’s novel It, he created two parallel story lines: one takes place while the characters are children; the second takes place thirty years later, while they are adults. Dividing the narrative into chapters eases the reader through the transition from one time frame to another and back again.

Signals the end of a section of the narrative.

In a family saga, it could mark the end of a character’s childhood. In a war story, it could mark the end of the character’s basic training. It serves as a structural reminder to the reader that one part of the story is over and a new one about to begin.

Signals a jump in time.

Similar in function to the “narrative section” purpose, but a bit more subtle. Perhaps, the character’s childhood isn’t over, but nothing of significance to the story happens between her tenth birthday and her fourteenth. A chapter break can signal to the reader that a significant jump in time is about to occur.

To increase dramatic effect.

Also known as “the cliffhanger.” A scene or section of the story ends with a dramatic event, putting your characters’ safety in risk. Having a chapter break presents the reader with a visual and narrative stop in the action which can enhance the suspense of the moment, making the reader want to see what happens next even more.

Signals a change in point-of-view.

If the story involves presenting the narrative through the filter of different characters’ point of view, a chapter break is an efficient means of signaling to the reader that the point of view is about to change. If the multiple points of view are only a scene or two long though, this could turn the story into a collection of hundreds of very short chapters.

To manipulate the pace.

After a climactic event, it is often important to have a period of catharsis, a period of time for the reader to relax, recover from the effect of the climax and begin building toward the next climax. A full chapter break can give this process a head start, by giving the reader a visual signal that the excitement is over, time to reset.

These are a few examples I came up with over an hour or so of brainstorming. Is it an exhaustive list? No, of course not. And many of the tasks done by chapter breaks can also be performed by other devices, such as scene breaks, hard scene breaks, and dividing the narrative into “part one,” “part two,” and so forth. I’m sure there are devices I haven’t thought of that could be just as effective. The object of art is to find out what works for us and what doesn’t. And this can change from one project to the next.

I think—and I include myself here—most of us break our works into chapters because books have always been broken into chapters, rather than making a discrete, conscious decision to use them. It is tradition and tradition is a strong motivator. In the end though, chapter breaks should be a stylistic choice by the author and publisher (not necessarily in that order). As authors, everything we do in our work should involve a conscious, artistic decision, because every little detail contributes to the whole. Nothing should be included automatically. Everything is there (or not there) for a reason.

Deciding whether to divide our work into chapters should follow this rule.

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