Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A few thoughts on chapters

with 2 comments

Little, Big by John Crowley

When you think about it, there’s really no reason that a novel needs to have chapters. Early constraints on the size of printed reading material, like scrolls or cuneiform tablets, meant that the first extended narratives were naturally divided into smaller units, like the books of the Iliad, and the conventions of oral storytelling lend themselves to longer works that are essentially collections of shorter pieces, from The Thousand and One Nights to The Canterbury Tales. A novel that tells a single story, even from multiple points of view, doesn’t necessarily need to be divided at all, unless, as in Proust’s case, the story can’t fit comfortably within a single volume. Yet with a handful of exceptions—often, oddly enough, in novels by Irish authors—every novel consists of a number of chapters. And while it’s tempting to think of chapters as a courtesy to the reader, who otherwise might be daunted by plunging into an unbroken block of text, it’s also worth asking a few simple questions about how they work.

Basically, a chapter is a unit of narrative that advances the story while also looking ahead to the next big development. This makes it fundamentally different from a scene, although many novels rightly stick to one scene per chapter. A scene, in itself, can accomplish a lot of things—establish character, convey information, set a mood—and it can often be read as a self-contained set piece. A chapter, by contrast, gains meaning from its role in the novel’s overall structure, and in particular from how it points the way forward. In its final shape, it looks both ways, by influencing the reader’s sense of what has happened so far and where the story is going, which often requires more than one scene. Chapters, in short, are about anticipation. And this gives us a useful clue about the proper placement of chapter breaks, which should ideally fall at the exact moment when the reader is given something to anticipate. Nabokov, for instance, places his chapter breaks in Lolita with the precision of a thriller:

I answered, perhaps a bit testily, that my wife was safe and sound, and still holding the receiver, I pushed open the door and said:

“There’s this man saying you’ve been killed, Charlotte.”

But there was no Charlotte in the living room.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

All of this is fairly abstract, but it hints at some practical rules for how chapters should be constructed. The fact that a chapter hinges on anticipation implies that it should break off slightly before its moment of resolution—hence the tip, which I’ve shared elsewhere, that if an extended sequence in a novel isn’t flowing smoothly, the author should try cutting the first and last paragraphs of every chapter. A lot of writers, including myself, feel the need to tie a bow on the end of every scene, and we’ll often approach our first draft with a few extra paragraphs at the beginning and end as we ramp ourselves into the story and ease our way out of it. This can be useful in a rough draft, when we’re imagining the scene for the first time, but in the rewrite, this introductory and concluding material can usually be cut with profit. The first draft of a chapter tends to be written as if it were meant to be read on its own, but it never is: it’s part of a larger structure, and when we leave only the middle, it’s easier to join the pieces. Here’s Nabokov again:

She got in and slammed the door. The old garage man beamed at her. I swung onto the highway.

“Why can’t I call my mother if I want to?”

“Because,” I answered, “your mother is dead.”

Still, a chapter represents a break in the action, as well as a pause in the reader’s attention, and the physical fact of that page of white space makes demands of its own. To make the transition easier, I try to start every chapter by clearly indicating the lead character—an important consideration in novels like mine, which jump frequently from one point of view to another—and grounding it in a clear objective and situation. In practice, this means postponing other kinds of information until later. For instance, chapters that start with an extended passage of description, or even just a line or two to sketch out the setting, tend to break the flow. It’s usually better, instead, to open on dialogue or a tight focus on a particular character’s actions, and then pull back to set the scene, much as a television show will often come back from commercial on a closeup, then cut away to a wide shot that indicates the overall setting. Chapter breaks are a lot like cuts in a movie, and like film editors, who have their own set of similar rules, novelists should strive to make the transitions as invisible as possible, so that nothing but the story remains.

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2013 at 8:49 am

2 Responses

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  1. You don’t make any mention of the cliffhanger function of chapters. I would guess that these evolved from the oral storytelling tradition (what better way to make people come share their food around your fire?) but they’ve also propelled whole genres and authors to great success.

    le cul en rows

    March 27, 2013 at 10:29 am

  2. That’s true, although I’d also argue that a cliffhanger is really only a case of anticipation being taken to the highest level.


    March 27, 2013 at 12:15 pm

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