Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Eternal Dilema: the Chapter Break.

How do you know where one chapter ends and another begins? What *is* a chapter?

By Vicki Delany

Gee, don’t ask me!

I probably spend more time worrying about where to put chapter breaks than any other technical detail in my writing.

A chapter should contain one scene or several related scenes. A chapter can contain one character’s POV and end when the POV switches.

A chapter should end at a tense moment. Oh, my gosh! Exclaims the reader, I have to read on and find out what happens next.

This isn’t difficult to do in a multi-POV novel where you can leave the heroine dangling from a branch over a raging river while crocodiles snap their jaws below.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch.

But in a single person POV book, the heroine can’t be dangling from the aforementioned branch every few pages.  Therefore the chapter often has to hinge on some emotional high or low.  But how to tell the story with an even flow without having too many dramatic or emotional moments?

Too many chapters or too few?  There are certainly no rules.  Some thriller writers these days are filling their book with nothing but chapter breaks. Every two or three pages, giving us more than a hundred chapters (and, I might add, making the hardcover copy of the book look a lot bigger than it is). Some more literary writers scarcely use chapters at all, maybe interspersing them some fifty pages or so apart.

I teach creative writing, and I do manuscript evaluations, and I can tell you the one thing not to do.  As Meredith has already pointed out: Don’t end more than one or two chapters when the character goes to bed, and open the next one when she wakes up.  Unless something incredibly dramatic happens when they go to bed (or wake up) or they have some emotional epiphany, we all KNOW they’ve slept sometime.

Other than that, all I can say is let your story evolve as it will, and put the chapters where ever you want. 

1 comment:

Barry Knister said...

I think the issue of chapter breaks has been changed significantly (like much else) by the effects of technology on reading. Specifically, this is true in terms of a shortened attention span in readers. More dialogue and shorter paragraphs are also responses to the editing in video content. For the writer, this means dividing stories into many more units than was true not so long ago. Is this good or bad? I don't know, but it is certainly the reality we live with.