Digging into Chapters

Today I started wondering what makes up a chapter. I’m working on my current project (because I still pretend I’m going to finish it by the end of the month), and I read through comments from a friend about how my chapters are short. That was the beginning chapter, then a few segments in (realizing all of the “chapters” are short) the comments were only on the ‘super short’ chapters.

How do we know how to say ‘end of chapter’? It’s not something that occupies me for the most part. I like to leave a cliffhanger ending if I can. There’s something about the pacing of the novel that just says where the ends ought to be. Or so I’ve always managed in the past.

But the comments started making me wonder about that. This particular project is young adult aimed at reluctant readers. When I put that into my thoughts, mostly the way I’ve done the chapters really fits the pace of the book.

Now I can put my chapters into all kinds of perspective. I can count them by number of words and decide that the math will tell me everything – in which case I have a few that are way too short. Average, minimum, maximum, and standard deviation all come into play. Interpretation is anybody’s game, though, so it only gives me more questions.

A good reminder to all the writers out there: fiction is not a game of numbers. 

Even more that is true if I think about all the books I’ve read: Which Twilight book was it that had four pages marked for the months like chapters and absolutely nothing written in them? The effect was clear about the passing of time where Bella had no recollection of events. Not that things didn’t happen, but she had completely withdrawn from life.

If a chapter can be as short as one sentence or as long as necessary, then why do we focus on such things as a magic number of words per chapter? It might be more effective to think about what a chapter needs to do. The chapter needs to make a point. The story needs to go forward.

Chapters have specific duties within a book. Start with breaking up the narrative. It’s hard to take an entire book in one sitting for most of us, and a chapter ending will be a place where a reader stops if possible. [And this is the best place to throw in cliffhangers!] In some third limited viewpoint books, a chapter break might herald another character viewpoint. Some give gaps for the passage of time or to change location.

It’s never perfect, and it never will be. Analysis only leads me to improve my work as long as I don’t get too far into the details. I’m sure I could eventually tweak all the chapters to be the exact same number of words, but that wouldn’t suit the project. It would be great to say they all need to be X number of words on average within .5 standard deviations. Yet that isn’t the part that really makes it something worth reading.

Each chapter I put down follows some inner voice in my head that this is where it needs to end. All of it is something that follows each different project to be a new whole. I wish I could quantify it more than that, but the answer is elusive. I can tell I’m not the only one – check  this article and the discussion here and here.

I have a rough draft of another book that I haven’t finished putting the chapter breaks into yet. The first piece turned out a longer than I originally intended, but that doesn’t mean I need to chop it into pieces. I’m still grappling with the entirety of it, and I’m sure it will come to me. 

How do you deal with chapters as writers and readers? 

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1 Comment

  1. averythorne said,

    20 March 2013 at 19:10

    Hmm… my beginning chapters are always really shot, and my later ones lengthen, then settle back into an average as I get comfortable with the story. Personally the length of chapters doesn’t matter to me. I try to stick to around 3000 words, but that’s just because I’ll post them and people on the internet (myself included) have short attention spans.


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