Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Art of Chaptering

In a recent Ask the Editor post, Kathy Stemke asked how a writer decides where to place chapter breaks. In fiction, chaptering is often intuitive. The practice isn't even as old as long-form fiction—it began in Great Britain so parts of books could be published in serial form.

Chaptering may feel arbitrary at first, but here's what you can gain from the exercise.

1. Chapter breaks remind you that story structure is important. Unless you plan to create numbered "books" or other multi-chapter sections within your novel, the chapter will probably be its largest building block. Building blocks make you think of structural elements like scene goals and conflict relevant to those goals, which is a good thing.


2. Chapter breaks remind you to think in terms of scenes. Chapters may have been revolutionary in Dickens' day but the modern reader is well adapted to sound bytes and jump cuts. We are busy. We want you to get to the good part. Whether your chapter includes one scene or more, ask what new conflict will now impact the forward movement of your story?

3. Chapter breaks remind you to watch for dramatic turning points. The savvy writer will create a chapter end in one of two places:

  • right before a dramatic turning point, when the reader's senses are heightened and he is dying to know what happens next (such as: "My tour group was looking at one of the most revered sculptures in the world while standing on a piazza made of ancient stone. At least we were, until the ground gave way beneath us.")
  • right after a dramatic turning point, when the next question has been raised (such as: "Even though I never had a chance to see his body or say goodbye, the memorial healed me. I laid out the dreams Jimmy and I had shared, admired them one last time, and buried them. I would move on with my life, because that's what Jimmy would have wanted. But that was before I got home and picked up the mail. In the pile was a hand-addressed letter, no return address. But I knew that writing like my own: it was Jimmy's.")
4. Chapter breaks can offer an added way to communicate with the reader. Who of his readers will ever forget A.A. Milnes' chapter designations in Winnie-the-Pooh, as in this charming title from Chapter VIII, "In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition [sic] to the North Pole"?

In her bestselling novel
The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd began each chapter with a nonfiction epigraph about the social nature of bees that kept you thinking about how the hive might serve as a metaphor for the relationships in the book.

In
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, told through the point of view of a boy with autism, Mark Haddon titles his chapters in the POV character's beloved prime numbers, beginning with "2."

5. Chapter breaks remind you that you must woo your reader—not just at the opening, but again and again. Your job is to make it difficult for a reader to put down your book and walk away, where distractions may prevent his return. Young adult novelist Brian Jacques, who until his death last month wrote of woodland creatures in his Redwall series, is well worth studying for the masterful way he handles chaptering. You may not be writing action/adventure, but once you get the hang of it, subtler forms of psychological and literary tension can perform the same trick.


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Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.



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16 comments :

  1. Yep, comments are working. :)

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  2. Very helpful post, Kathryn. Another good point about chapter breaks is that it allows time to pass without the author having to specifically mention it.

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  3. Great post. I'm editing a manuscript right now and I've been waffling a lot over where chapter breaks belong, so this is helpful to read. Thanks!

    Sara
    http://smreine.com/

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  4. I like the second kind of chapter break you described, Kathryn: right after a major turning point, when a new dramatic question is raised. However, I try to make that feel invisible. Theoretically, the reader won't know exactly why it's hard to put the book down.

    Great post and great reminders, thanks. I've discovered that, while I have a knack for the writing itself, creating a structure for something as complicated as a novel is my greatest challenge.

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  5. Good points, Kathryn. Thanks. I've had several author clients who started every new chapter with the protagonist getting out of bed in the morning. Although there's a natural structure there, it's just too predictable, I think. Best to vary the chapter openings - and closings, of course.

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  6. When I wrote my first manuscript I didn't include any chapter breaks. I went back and filled them in later. After learning a bit more about the craft, I went back and realized almost every chapter ended with a character either driving away or going to sleep.

    An important lesson -- keep the reader needing to know what's on the next page. As a reader, I generally stop mid-page because I know if I keep going to the end of the chapter, I'm likely to be hooked and never get to sleep. As an author I love it when a reader says, "couldn't put it down."

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  7. Great post! I try to end my chapters on a cliffhanger or revelation or something that urges the reader to read on, but I still have a couple ending with my MC going to bed - I wonder if that's always a bad thing I should try to get rid of?

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  8. This was perfect timing. I'm working on my first novel and was wondering how to handle this. Great post.
    http://womenentrepreneursecrets.blogspot.com

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  9. Thanks for the comments and ideas, everyone! Late to my own party here--it's conference season, and that means crazy for me! But where writers come together, that's where I want to be--including here--so sorry not to catch your comments earlier.

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  10. Many thanks for this post! I have a long-term problem with chaptering with a tendency to end on a 'deadpan' or some other 'she went to sleep' note.
    It deserves to be twitted

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  11. Jodie, Terry, and Girl Friday:
    The fact that all three of you mentioned a version of the wake-up/fall asleep scenario suggests its cliched usage. If you rewrite all beginnings and endings on one day, you can pick up those patterns.

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  12. Terry:
    I think a lot of us wrote without chapter breaks on our first drafts. But when I went back and divided it up, and tried to apply the chaptering advice in this post, I realized how much "filler" I had between scenes. I threw away pages and pages of my first ms for this reason alone!

    The earlier you master the "jump cut," and include only the scenes in which something relevant and important is happening, the more efficient your writing process will be, right?

    And the only place to put a good book down is at a mid-chapter line break, in my opinion!

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  13. SM: Thanks for reading! I'm glad it was helpful.

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  14. I never knew that chaptering was so damn complex...Thanks for making me smarter!

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  15. Terry: I think a lot of us wrote without chapter breaks on our first drafts. But when I went back and divided it up, and tried to apply the chaptering advice in this post, I realized how much "filler" I had between scenes. I threw away pages and pages of my first ms for this reason alone! The earlier you master the "jump cut," and include only the scenes in which something relevant and important is happening, the more efficient your writing process will be, right? And the only place to put a good book down is at a mid-chapter line break, in my opinion!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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