Tuesday, 1 June 2010

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.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!


Sarah Callejo said...

This is very useful at the stage I'm at. Is there some sort of preference for shorter or longer chapters in books? I imagine readers prefer shorter chapters so they can stop easily at a natural place, not half-way through the chapter.

Sarah Duncan said...

I think the usual range is 1000-6000 words and you want a variety to keep readers on their toes! It's usual for chapters to get shorter when you want the pace to pick up, for example, at the end.

Of course, from the writer's POV you want to make it harder for readers to leave your book so it can be a balancing act: give them a short chapter and they might be more inclined to go on to read the next one.

Lizzie said...

Hi Sarah,

I couldn't imagine writing without chapters – I'd be too worried that a huge Word doc might crash before I'd had time to back it up! At the start of any wip, completing chapters gives me a sense of achievement ... 'I've now written four chapters ...'

But as I get into the book, or after I have a first draft, I often swap material around, or add in new chapters. I'm going to look at my chapter lengths and make sure I have some shorter ones for pace. Most of my chapters are around the 4,000/5,000 mark.

Hope all goes well at Corsham this evening.

Sarah Duncan said...

Well it hasn't yet for me! I write all my novels as one big document and never divide them up into chapters until the very end. But I do see the sense of achievement. I suppose I get that from obsessively doing word counts and having little rewards. There's lots of 'No Bargain Hunt until you've written 2,000 words!'

If it works for you while writing, then that's great. Just don't forget at the re-writing stage that chapters have a technical function too.

Very impressed you're onto chapter 4 already of the new one and thanks for reminding me about Corsham this evening, I'd better go and get out of writing kit and into something a bit posher.

Lizzie said...

Oh no, I haven't reached the heady heights of finishing chapter four yet of my new novel, that was just an example. I wish I had a complete first page!

Sarah Duncan said...

Phew - I now don't feel so bad comparing my dismal output with your productivity.