Monday, 6 February 2012

To chapter or not to chapter

Yes, I'm talking chapters today. I'm curious as to how important people consider them in terms of novels and the overall structure. If you're submitting a query to an agent, at least in the UK, the overwhelming majority of them ask for the first three chapters along with the synopsis and cover letter. It seems that a new writer won't be accepted if they don't follow this convention.

But why should this be? One of the most popular and successful authors ever produced by this country, Terry Pratchett, rarely writes in chapters. You can read for as long as you like without the narrative being interrupted by an arbitrary break. And for me anyway, I don't tend to read a chapter at a time. I read in short bursts as the opportunity arises, so I often break off mid-paragraph. I'm not really bothered about chapters.

That said, I can see the value of them. Many writers treat each chapter as a mini-novel, with conflict, goals for the characters and some kind of resolution or at least forward movement. Unlike the book as a whole (unless it's part of a series), they often end on a cliffhanger. I don't tend to work in such a regimented way. With my first novel, I wrote the first two chapters, then chapter three was basically the rest of the book (I divided it up afterwards). I felt I should for the benefit of agents, but I don't think it's essential. You could end each section on a cliffhanger, follow it with a row of asterisks, then start up again, and it keeps the action flowing pretty seamlessly. The end of a chapter invites you to stop, take a breath, consider what's just been read. You might not want the reader to pause for breath. I guess it depends how you want to pace things - either way is valid.

For my WIP, I have stuck with chapters so far (I'm on 7 - I think) but they might well get abandoned once the pace picks up. I only have a vague outline of the plot and would never plan each chapter in advance, but I appreciate that works for a lot of people and that's fine.

So what about you? Are you a chapter writer and/or planner, or do they tend to come in editing? Have you written a book without chapters? What do you prefer when it comes to reading?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Nope! I write the whole thing all the way through without more than one line breaks here and there. I don't separate it until it's complete.
Makes that chore challenging sometimes!

Stu Ayris said...

Hi Nick! Sounds like your novel is coming on great! Keep it up!

In terms of chapters, the two novels I have written so far and the one I am currently writing are divided into chapters. I guess the main reason being that I had never considered not having chapters as an option!

Like you, when I read, I don't think "right, I'll read to the end of this chapter." I do read every night before going to sleep but this will sometimes just be a paragraph or so.

As a writer I find chapters helpful purely in terms of the way I visualise what is happening in the story. As I don't plan what happens, for me it is very much a case of 'daydreaming' almost, watching it play out as a film in my mind - and in films, you have scenes, natural breaks etc and, for me, when writing, they become natural chapters.

I hope that makes sense!

Keep up the fine work!!


Rachna Chhabria said...

I am a complete chapter person/writer. I write chapter by chapter, even when I outline a book, its chapter by chapter. I like ending chapters on cliff hangars, its a great way to make readers keep reading.

DL Hammons said...

Yep...I plan/write in chapters, even down to scenes within a chapter. At least that's the way I did it for my first two books. Who knows about the next one? :)

Nick Wilford said...

Alex - Yes, it can be hard to know where to separate it, especially if you have a lot of cliffhangers! Maybe aiming for uniform lengths of chapters is a good idea?

Stu - That does make sense! It's a good way to look at it. It keeps each stage of the story defined.

Rachna - You can't beat a cliffhanger. I suppose even if a reader only has time to read a chapter at a time, doing that keeps them mentally involved with the story so they can't wait to pick it up again.

DL - We should always be open to different ways of working. It all depends on the story.

Shallee said...

I write with chapters, or really, scenes. I'm a pretty intense "planner," so I have certain scenes ideas already laid out. The writing of it always changes things, and a lot of times I adjust the chapters and scenes. It's interesting to see how different people do it!

Nick Wilford said...

Shallee - I do have certain scenes in mind that I would like to include, but I never plan them out too much, because things change as I go along. I'm a bit of a pantser on the quiet!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Good question. I struggled with how to split into chapters in my first novel. I finally decided there would be 42 (Douglas Adams fan here), and I divided them into roughly equal page lengths.

For my WIP, I change chapters each time there's a pov change. I have two viewpoint characters.

I tend to write short chapters. I fugure, the reader will say, "Oh, the next one is short. I'll read just one more. And then one more, one more..."

Jay Noel said...

I plan in episodes, which may or may not become actual chapters. I tend to write in 3rd person limited - episodic. So although I maintain the same POV, I do change viewpoints. So I have to think in chapters, otherwise I will just get thoroughly confused.

But I do remove whole chapters, move things around quite a bit after that 1st draft.

L.C. said...

I suppose it depends on the type of novel, too--I can easily see a literary piece having less chapter division, but in something like a thriller, I tend to like the "cliffhanger" feeling at the end of a chapter. And Terry Pratchett is awesome. I've read some of his Discworld books and enjoyed them very much.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

I'm definitely a chapter writer because I like to read books with breaks. It's not absolutely necessary, but a book without chapters has to be done carefully otherwise the book could feel like it's dragging its feet.

Nick Wilford said...

Amanda - That's a cool idea with your first book. Douglas Adams is great.

The POV thing is interesting too. It's a good way to engage readers as they'll keep thinking, "I wonder what the other character thinks of this".

Jay - Yes, chapters are a good way to keep scenes self-contained.

LC - That's a good point. Thrillers often have short, sharp chapters to keep things moving, whereas literary chapters can be more "langurous". So the genre you're writing has a bearing on it, I guess.

Yes, he's great, but my wife can't get on with the lack of chapters at all!

Lynda - Breaks are good, but again, I think genre and the story itself can play a big part in how it's done.

nissa_loves_cats said...

Lately I've been doing one chapter per scene, and doing shorter scenes, as a result of an attempt to do a blog novel (it didn't really go anywhere, but I learned from it.)

I think the short chapters thing is helpful to the modern reader who has a shorter attention span, but if publishers still want three chapters, they may be disappointed in someone like me.

Anonymous said...

I've never thought to write without chapters. I like to break up my writing because it's what I'm used to reading and I believe it's what most people are used to. Therefore, I guess I would feel I was too much of a risk taker by attempting to write without having chapters. Now, if I were to become a successful author then maybe I'd be more willing to try something out of the norm and maybe people would be more willing to accept a different style.

Nick Wilford said...

Nissa - Sorry for not responding to your comment, we left on that day and I'd forgotten when we came back.

Like Amanda said, short, sharp chapters can be good for keeping a reader going. I see a lot of mainstream books like that so there's no harm trying publishers.

Ro - I think no chapters works when the book feels like a stream of consciousness and there's no obvious place for a break. But I agree it's not for when you're first starting off. Terry Pratchett's first book did have chapters!

Melissa said...

Interesting post. I'm still working this issue out for myself. I've come to the conclusion that shorter chapters are better (except for the intense parts where the reader is riveted - finally finding out some secrets or whatever), but I still don't have a good feel for this part of writing.

I'm a hybrid (plotter/panster) and currently number the first few chapters, then insert [chapter break?] wherever there's a good spot. I doc-search the word 'chapter' when I'm done with the ms, mouse over to see what pages they're on (some are only 3 pages apart LOL), and then choose and number the best chapter breaks.

I've yet to query, so we'll see...

Nick Wilford said...

Melissa - First off, thanks for looking at my earlier posts. I admit I haven't done that yet with the new people I'm following from the campaign, just due to the sheer volume of entries to get to!

That's an interesting technique, I might have to try it! I think consistency of length is fairly important, as some people just read a chapter per night or whatever and don't want a big long one if they're used to short ones, but it's also crucial to get the breaks at the right moment. Editing is all a matter of fiddling really, isn't it?