Chapter Choices
     Victoria Grossack

Back in March 2005 – more than a year ago! – I offered you a column that reviewed different levels of structure in fiction. Since then, we have covered many of the different levels in more detail: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, scenes and also, several levels above, series. In this column we will review another level of structure: chapters.

Chapters in fiction have no hard-and-fast rules. In some novels, each chapter consists of a single scene; in other novels, most chapters contain several scenes. I have even read books in which a single scene crosses more than one chapter. I have read novels with short chapters, long chapters and even a few with no chapters at all. Moreover, I have liked them, and many of these books are successful, despite their differences.

Yet the varying approaches to chapters play important roles in their books. So let’s review some of the choices you can make when designing chapters and the impact these choices may have on your novel.

Why Have Chapters?

If, as I wrote before, dividing your novel into chapters is not absolutely necessary in fiction – although I strongly advise it, unless you have good artistic reasons not to – why do most writers do it? Here are a couple of reasons why:

To give readers a break

One practical definition of a novel is that it’s a piece of fiction that is too long to be consumed at one sitting. In other words, for purely physical reasons, such as needing to eat and sleep and visit the smallest room in the house, readers will have to put down your novel. The end of a chapter signals a spot where readers can do that – simply because it’s easy for them to find where they were when they put the book down.

Now, as authors, we don’t really want our readers putting our books down, not at least without urgently wanting to pick them back up again, so we may choose to write in a style that includes cliffhangers. (A chapter ending in a cliffhanger means that the plot has taken an exciting turn, such as Pauline is left hanging off a cliff.) Nevertheless, we need to recognize that readers will, despite our best manipulative efforts, occasionally have to close our books and either lay them on a table or stuff them in a bag. Therefore, to help the reader back into to the story, the beginning of each chapter should set the scene if necessary, reminding readers what’s happening.

To organize your story

You will also find, as you’re writing your novel, that some scenes belong together in a chapter, and that, when you’re finished with them, it’s time to move to the next chapter. Here are some considerations:

- Time. Scenes may belong together if they’re part of the same block of time. James Michener, whose novels cover periods going back sometimes as far as the time of the dinosaurs to today, uses this technique. He chooses a few characters in an epoch and we learn about that epoch through their eyes.

- Characters. Perhaps your story follows several different characters who later get together. An example of this is Jean Auel’s The Valley of the Horses, the second book in the popular Clan of the Cave Bear series. In The Valley of the Horses, Auel alternates her chapters between the storylines of Ayla and Jondalar and his brother Thonolan – until Ayla and Jondalar finally meet.

- Point of view. Another reason to have several scenes together in a chapter is because they all have the same point of view. Another chapter may cover the same events, but told from a different character’s perspective. Agatha Christie uses this technique when different characters give their own versions of events surrounding a murder.

- Place. Perhaps some scenes take place in New York, while others occur in Los Angeles. It may be logical to have your chapters organized by where the action is occurring.

- Episode in the story. Perhaps a chapter is devoted to a character’s childhood, while another is to his graduation or marriage.

- Plot-driven. Sometimes scenes in a chapter deal with resolving the problems that arose in the previous chapter. At the chapter’s end, those problems may be resolved – either a real resolution or a “solution” that leads to new, even more exciting difficulties.

The list above is not exhaustive. Nor is it even mutually exclusive; in other words, the types of organization above can occasionally overlap, that is, you can use them simultaneously. I am just trying to give some common examples of what writers do. How you choose to organize your novel depends on and should make sense for the story you’re telling.

However, let me emphasize that your chapters should have some organizational structure and that you should know what that structure is. Occasionally you may read something you’ve written and experience the vague, uncomfortable feeling that something is wrong but you don’t know what it is. One thing to check is how you have structured your chapters, and if you are following that structure. Many times, by fixing the structure underlying your chapters, you will greatly improve your manuscript.

Odds and Ends

There are many other options you can choose from when creating chapters. Here are a few of them.

Chapter Length

The size of chapters makes a difference to the pacing of your book. The shorter your chapters are, the quicker is the pace of your story. If you use longer chapters, your story may slow down. However, don’t think that I am recommending short chapters, for many other items influence the page-turning quality of your fiction. Very short chapters can be so shallow that your readers never really get into the story, and longer chapters can also allow your readers to make deeper connections with your characters and their needs. Note that the connection to your readers also depends on your readers; they, too, will have different preferences with respect to chapter length and you will not be able to please all of them.

Some authors aim to make their chapters about the same size. This must have been common when writers, such as Antony Trollope and Charles Dickens, produced installments that were serialized in weekly periodicals. But that happens infrequently now, although we may see a resurgence of serialization through e-books and blogging.

I like it when chapters are about the same size, because it helps me pace myself when reading and I prefer a regular rhythm. However, other elements to the story may be more important and so this is one of the choices you need to make.

Numbering Chapters

How should you mark your chapters? Should you use Arabic numerals – or Roman – or write the numbers out as letters, e.g., “Twenty-Six” as opposed to “26”? Whatever you choose helps flavor your writing.

My recommendation is that if you have many chapters – for example, 78 – that you should use Arabic numerals. If you have fewer chapters – for example, twenty – then you can write out the numbers as words. And as for using Roman numerals, such as Thirteen = XIII, remember that people may have difficulty with Roman numerals when the numbers get larger. So, if you have a lot of chapters, instead of writing, “Chapter XLVIII,” you should probably write, “Chapter 48.” Unless, of course, your novel is set in ancient Rome!

Chapter Titles

Some writers give their chapters titles. These can provide a way to siphon off your excess creativity – in other words, to have some fun! After all, your novel gets only one title and you may have the urge to make more of them.

With very short chapters, chapter titles may be absurd – unless you have also written a very short book and want to give each chapter more weight. An example of this is the book, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson (actually a management book only thinly disguised as a novel – and only 96 pages long, with a more-than-customary proportion of white space). However, if your chapters are long – almost novellas – giving them titles should be no problem – although again, they aren’t necessary.

Chapter – and Verse?

Occasionally authors include a verse or quotation at the beginning of a chapter, to emphasize the theme of the upcoming chapter. Some sources include Shakespeare, the Bible, Homer – or John Gray, Dale Carnegie, Martin Luther King or Betty Friedan.

Some authors will make up the piece that they include at the beginning of a chapter. Frank Herbert did this in some of his Dune novels, where he quoted from a book written by one of the antagonists, allowing another perspective on the action that was to come.

Concluding Comments

As readers, we may not always pay attention to how authors organize their chapters. I’d rather just turn pages and enjoy the story. However, when I take the time to look, often there’s a well-defined, deliberately designed structure.

If you’re not sure that you grasp how chapters work, pick up a few novels that you have read and enjoyed, and take another look to see how the chapters in those books are organized. The more you understand how the chapters in other novels are organized, the more control you will have over your own chapters.

If you want to contact me about this article, or anything else, please write to [email protected].


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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which, by the way, is an excellent example of a book with plot-driven chapters and cliffhangers. There's exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks are reading it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.