Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Fine Art of Chaptering

Hello all. I know it’s been awhile, but between school and work and social responsibilities, yadda yadda yadda. So here’s a post about something my novel-writing class recently discussed: chaptering. How do you know when you’ve written a chapter? Do you set out with the chapter’s end in mind, do you discover it the moment it’s written, or do you see it only afterward? What about chapter titles? Numbers? How long should a chapter be? Do you need chapters at all?

Most of these questions can be answered relative to your work. In most cases, you do need chapters. It gives your reader a break, it provides episodic little mini-arcs, they can be used as building blocks, they encourage your reader to keep going. Most books have chapters, even though you may not always notice them as a reader. There are several books of different genres and styles on my desk right now: Alicia Erian’s Towelhead, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Tite Kubo’s Bleach (Vol. 29), R. A. Salvatore’s Streams of Silver. Guess what-- they all have chapters. Yep, even the manga.

The question of what makes a chapter is a little more difficult to answer, and really, there is no 100% infallible rule for how to split up your book. For me, it’s easier to write four or five chapters’ worth of material and then go back, looking for places to chop it up. Occasionally I know instantly that I should insert a page break where I am and begin a new chapter, but not often. The length of chapters varies from book to book as well. Most books have chapters of a fairly uniform length-- if one chapter is ten pages, the others will be around 7-15. Other books throw that idea out the window and have a chapter of two pages followed by a chapter of 20. I try to keep mine similar in length, but I think different types of projects call for different approaches.

The first book I ever wrote, my drawer novel, had chapter titles. The two and a half after that had numbered chapters, but the books were divided into parts which had titles. For the two main projects I'm working on now, I’ve just used numbers. I think chapter titles are fun, and I would like to use them in my writing, but they’re also tricky to use correctly and often don’t work all that well for more mature readers. Perhaps this is because it interrupts the fictional dream and exposes the rusty metal framework of the novel, I’m not sure.

I thought I’d give you an example: my current project for my novel writing class. It’s in first person, told from the POV of Amber, a college student whose life promptly gets turned upside down by some unnatural happenings. It’s in a very rough state and I’m less than five chapters into the first draft, but I recently went through and divided up chapters for the first time. You can see my strategies and decide whether or not they work for you.

I love cliffhangers. Many of my chapters end on them. It’s a good way to hook the reader, to make them think, “Aw, just one more chapter, then I’ll go to bed” about ten times. Chapter 1 of my project employs something of a cliffhanger. It ends with the beginning of a chase, as well as the first tiny clue that something is off here-- a guy’s skin appears for a moment to be leopard-printed. Then Amber promptly breaks off her narration with the statement that a little background might be necessary, and the chapter ends. Chapter one is almost five manuscript pages.

Chapter two ends on another cliffhanger-- Amber gets jumped on and taken down by a rottweiler. Eep. Pages: 8.

Chapter three is a little different. It’s sort of a downer, ending on a forlorn note. Amber made a cowardly decision and she reflects on it for a moment. It’s not a cliffhanger, but it does introduce a major dramatic question: Will Amber gain courage and confidence? Will she rectify this maybe-mistake? Those questions will keep people reading just as well as action-y cliffhangers. Pages: Just over 10.

Chapter four answers the second question-- given the choice again, Amber makes the braver (if not necessarily more advisable) decision right at the end of the chapter. Now the question changes: Was this the right thing for her to do? How will it affect her academic/work/personal life? It’s also mixed in with a cliffhanger: Amber’s last words to the reader are “Buckle up.” Pages: Just over 8.

I don’t know if chapter five has ended yet. I don’t think so. I think it’s going to be a long one, but I’m saving that decision for later, focusing on the story and the writing first and then pulling back to look at structure.

I hope this has given you a glimpse of how chaptering works and my personal methods. All writers are different, and I’m certainly not saying my way is the only or even the best way, but if you’re struggling and need something to try, think about ending your chapters on cliffhangers, unanswered questions, moments of high emotion, etc. I’d love to hear from you about how you format chapters in your own work.

Until next time, happy writing!

P.S. If you'd like to see other things my noveling class is up to, follow our antics on Twitter: #amnoveling.