Years ago I was in a writers’ group with a younger writer, who is now, finally, writing fiction… and I’m still in a writers’ group with her, though this time on Facebook (how things change and yet remain the same!)
Anyway, she’s now embarked on her first long piece, and she is writing it in what she calls “chunks.” She asked what the difference was between her “chunks” and chapters, and should she make her chunks chapters, and do you number them or name them and…
So … since this is a permanent bafflement for writers – including experienced ones, I thought I’d talk about chapters.
I’ll start with the admission I’m not sure I absolutely get “the rules of chapters” yet, or even if there are rules.
When I started writing, coming from a “theory of literature” background, I treated chapters like scenes in the theater. When someone came in or left, a new chapter started. It worked, in a way, but it might have trained my internal sense to really short, punchy chapters. I also, somewhere along the line picked up the brilliant idea that chapters were “self contained units” which meant I tended to end the chapter at a good point to put the book down. (This is a bad idea.)
Nowadays I treat chapters more like a way to stage manage scene changes, to elide “boring stuff” or to move to the next exciting bit. Say the character is getting in her car, and nothing important happens on the trip, not even a good traffic jam – easier to break then and start up the next chapter with “the house looked abandoned” or whatever. Or say my character needs to tell the other character what she saw in the other chapter. The reader already knows it. Easier to break and start again with “When I told him what I’d seen at the abandoned house, Terry blenched.”
And I’ve learned to do things like put the important question at the end of the chapter, so that the reader has a reason to continue reading. (Think of the old radio serials.) “But what would happen at the abandoned house?”
I’m not saying it works for everyone, but it works for me. So, here’s what I’ve learned about chapters, the good, the bad and the ugly:
1 – Chunks or chapters?
Chapters. Chunks sounds like you’re throwing up and people don’t want to pay for that, because, ew.
2 – How long should a chapter be?
As long as it needs to be. I’ve written two-paragraph chapters, and I’ve written ten thousand word chapters. Both were right.
3- Yes, but how do you know it’s a chapter?
When continuing to write it as a unit, without a break, would make you slog through boring stuff neither you nor your reader want to deal with; when it seems like you’ve gone on too long without a change of scene; when you have a really cool hook to break on that will make your reader flip the page immediately to the next chapter.
4- Does a chapter have to be in the same character’s head? Can you have change of heads with section breaks in the same chapter?
Yes. Depending on the book you can do one or the other. Sometimes you can even do both. Shuddup. I’m not being flip. It’s true.
5- Do you name chapters? Or do you number them?
After being yelled at by one of the people converting my books for publication, I was given to understand that the Amazon system works better with numbers. This is a pain since one of my trademarks is getting confused and ending up with five chapters 10 and no chapters 4 or 5 or 20. OTOH I do that with names too, leading to questions from Baen like “Did you really mean to have two chapters called “through hell?”” So… uh… yeah. Some people can’t be helped.
6- Do you have to have chapters?
Well, technically no. My first book for Baen – and the second – had scene breaks, but no chapters. I’d stolen that from Pratchett and was really, really proud of myself. Let’s say it doesn’t’ work at all well in ebooks and I can only take so much of my publisher pinning my ears back. Also, now that I do my own ebooks… it just doesn’t work well. So, have chapters.
7 – What if my chapters are complete units?
Well, then your readers will put the book back and not come back to it. This is, as we say in the business, a BAD thing. How do you fix it? Well… Learn to either put a question at the end, or simply take the last paragraph from the chapter, and put it in the beginning of the next chapter. Learn from the old radio serials. Break where people will want to follow. Don’t let the reader get away!
8 – What if I’m doing chapters wrong?
There is no such thing. Chapters, like paragraphing, have broad guidelines, more than rules. NO ONE can tell you that you’re chaptering (Totally a word. Shuddup) wrong. They can tell you they’d do it differently, but that’s it.
9 – But what if they’re really chunks?
Call them chapters, anyway. It’s much classier, and the rest of us likes to think of ourselves as classy. Really. Stop laughing. And go write some chapters. Or something.