Sunday, 6 December 2009

Writing without Chapters

A chapter is a useful tool for the reader. It divides the novel up into easily manageable sections so the reader can spread out the contents over several days or weeks, perhaps a chapter before bedtime.

A chapter is a useful tool for the writer. It divides the novel up into easily manageable sections so the writer can spread the labour of writing the darn thing. It makes it easy to plan a book - say, three scenes per chapter of about 1500 -2000 words each scene, and twenty scenes - and there you are. Novel written.

Except it's not that easy. A chapter is not a useful tool for good story telling. A chapter is not a useful tool for rewriting. A chapter is not a useful tool for rearranging. Okay, I'm going to go headlong against those who like to plan out their novel before they start writing, but in my opinion a chapter is not a useful tool for writing a novel that works.

Writing by chapters inhibits creativity by arranging it into nice chunks. It's the Tick Box approach to writing, no deviations allowed. I've heard writers say that they couldn't possibly move this scene some place else, even though they can see why it's been suggested, because then the chapter would be too short. And rewriting is often out because it upsets chapter balance. And the amazing cliff-hanger which will have the readers turning the pages faster than a Zeotrope machine can't possibly go there because it is ordained that the chapter finishes six pages later on.

Sectioning the novel into chapters is about the last thing I do before it goes off to my editor. They may be between 1000-6000 words, but I'm looking for variety in length and brilliant chapter ends. As the novel gets towards the end, the chapters become shorter to help pick up the pace. Above all, the chapters go where it suits the story-telling and not the other way around.


Ann said...

This was one of those lessons that really made a difference to my writing output. Since I stopped writing in chapters I am liberated from any thoughts relating to chapter word count etc and can let the creative flow take over.

Loving your blogs Sarah, great reinforcement of lessons for me.


Jo said...

I have divided my novel into chapters so far and it is inhibiting, you're right. When I get to the end of a chapter, I mentally and physically stop - sometimes for several weeks, which is most unhelpful. I don't have an aversion to changing scenes around, though. I was very interested to read that your chapters vary in length. For some reason, I've been telling myself that they have to be of similar length. This blog post has been particularly useful to me. Thank you!

Sarah Duncan said...

I think in some genres they are a very consistent length - I believe (possibly quite wrongly) that Harlequin Mills and Boon novels have a consistent chapter length and most writers plan the stories around the chapters.

But for most novels, variety is best. Check out the books you're aiming to sit next to on the shelves at Waterstones and see if there's any pattern.