Monday, August 27, 2007

Chapter by Chapter

By Josi S. Kilpack

In non-fiction, a chapter is easily divided from the rest of the book. It usually centers on one idea, one segment of the overall topic. If writing about Chickens, for instance, one chapter would be about hatching chicks, another one about raising chicks, another one about building an adequate coop. Coming from a fiction writer's perspective, chapters in a non-fiction are a breeze. (I'm braced for hate mail from non-fiction writers on this, bring it on, I can take it).

In fiction, however, the delineation is different. In The Da Vinci Code, Brown uses short chapters; 105 in fact. And, at least in my opinion, it works for the book. Because the book is fast paced and covers a broad character array, having short chapters moves it quickly, keeps the energy up, and allows him to show multiple POV with solid breaks. I liked it, in fact a lot of other authors liked it too and I've seen a change in many novels since then. I did it myself in my latest book Sheep's Clothing, having 79 chapters, nearly 30 more than any other book I've written. But, that doesn't mean it works for every book.

As you decide how long your chapters should be, consider the following:

--Long chapters give the reader a chance to really get into the story, and scenes taking place within that chapter. Since readers rarely put a book down in the middle of a chapter, longer chapters can be to your benefit if your book is one that moves at a slower pace.

--Any chapter, long or short, that ends with a 'hook' makes it harder for the reader to put the book down. Ending in a cliffhanger increases the chances that the dishes will be put off for just 'one more chapter'

--If you use multiple POV in your novel, consider a new chapter with each POV change. It is highly obnoxious to realize several pages into a scene that you thought you were Jim but are really Brenda.

--Every chapter should do one of two things, and preferably both: 1) Move the story forward 2) Further characterization. If your chapter does neither, it should be cut or combined with another chapter that does fulfill these requirements. If it only does one of those things, can you make it do both?

Chapters are the building blocks of novels. Each chapter should build on the ones before it and lay ground work for those scenes to come. Don't get so caught up in 'trends' that you lose sight of how the chapter works in your own story.


Karlene said...

Your use of chapters in Sheep's Clothing was really good. It fit the story. And that's the key. Chapter length is determined by genre, story line, and a few other nebulous things...

Annette Lyon said...

Good advice all around. I've been tempted to do shorter chapters, but since I'm writing historicals, that just doesn't fit. Great reminder to keep every scene and chapter doing as much as it can.

Janette Rallison said...

I'm in awe of writers who can end their chapters with cliff hangers. Every once in awhile I can do it but not every time. (Perhaps I just need to throw a terrorist into my romantic comedies . . .)