Monday, March 2, 2015

Starting a New Chapter?

A colleague asked if chapters were necessary, or if they were simply a holdover from the days of yore
Ancient Chinese eReader
when there was no such thing as “books” printed on paper and bound together.  Rather, ancient authors would write on a collection of scrolls, or inscribe bound bamboo strips.  These would usually be on a primary topic, and then stored together as a “book”.  There was no standard scroll or bamboo strip length, but you can imagine it was dictated by the practicality of handling, writing and reading, so often “books” were divided into smaller “chapters” for the sake of the writer’s cramped fingers and reader’s back.

Like any rule in writing, so long as you understand the reasoning behind it, you’re welcome to break it to suit the needs of the book, and ultimately the enjoyment of your reader.  Chapters do serve a purpose, but depending on the book you’re writing, and the needs of the plot, and how clever you are (or want to appear), they aren’t required to be successful.

So what do chapters do?  Several things, actually.  Possibly the most important thing they do is give the writer a place to stop and have a strong drink.

Correctly applied, chapters provide a logical conclusion to a smaller arc within the larger arc of the book.  In a mystery, for example, some information is gathered that is necessary to the solution.  A clue is revealed, a suspect is captured, a witness is questioned, etc.  Additional questions or layers of complexity can certainly be added to the stack, but a chapter moves the plot forward, building on the previous information, and setting up the following sections.  Most chapters, in most books, follow a logical and predictable pattern.

Bro, do you even English?
Chapters also help divide books into consumable chunks.  While it would be nice and lovely to read a book from cover to cover in a single sitting, most readers don’t have the time, inclination or stamina to actually do this.  Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Close your HateMail app.  I said “most”!  Intrusions of life, like work, kids, eating, kids, sleeping, kids and the latest “Game of Thrones” episode force many (again “many”) readers to insert their favorite book mark or turn off the power on their e-reader.  A chapter, and chapter breaks (those time/space/point of view shifts within a chapter) give a reader a place to logically pause and return later without being overly confused by where they stopped reading.

Finally, chapters can be fun and clever (or appear so).  Stephen King numbered the chapters in The Running Man backwards.  Marilynne Robinson often doesn’t use chapters, as is the case in Home and Gilead.  Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books all have 13 chapters (except the last book which has 14, but the additional chapter is like a mini-book).  I understand there is even a young, handsome and debonaire author who used the chapter titles from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species for his award-winning urban fantasy novel, and then used The Art of War to title his follow-up novel.

The upshot is that now you know what purpose chapters serve, so you can choose to go with the flow, rearrange, or ignore the convention of chapters altogether.  Go forth.  Write.  Enjoy!

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