Wednesday, 29 December 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.

8 comments:

Fiona Faith Maddock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fiona Faith Maddock said...

I'm so pleased you wrote this. My approach to chapter length has always been my guilty secret. I never have been able to cut my prose up into equal slices, like a cake. For me the chapter length is always dictated by the natural rhythm of the writing. In my WIP (work in progress) most of my chapters are two or three pages long, the longest is six pages and the shortest is half a page.

badas2010 said...

After reading this interesting post, I thought about my stuff and most of the stories run along in differing locations so that chapters start when a new location comes up. And they start where it suits the story at the time. A seventeen page chapter in one of them was followed by a one paragraph chapter of fifty words - sounds strange but if you read it, it would all become clear. Stephen King once had a one word chapter - the word was 'Wrong!'

badas2010 said...

After reading this interesting post, I thought about my stuff and most of the stories run along in differing locations so that chapters start when a new location comes up. And they start where it suits the story at the time. A seventeen page chapter in one of them was followed by a one paragraph chapter of fifty words - sounds strange but if you read it, it would all become clear. Stephen King once had a one word chapter - the word was 'Wrong!'

badas2010 said...

Sorry - got the hiccups!

Sarah Duncan said...

The tyranny of Chapters is one of my bugbears so I'm happy that the post has helped. Chapters should be as long as the writer needs them to be, no more, no less.

Gail Crane said...

This has really struck a chord.

I have always written in chapters (constantly hitting "word count" to check length) but recently I have been wondering if it wouldn't be easier to just keep writing and split it into chapters when it's finished.

After reading this, I think maybe I'll give it a go.

Sarah Duncan said...

Do! Really - lots of people who try it find it easier, it's not just me spouting off because that's the way I do it.

I find it helps with things like pacing which is often an overall problem - have a look at the posts on Jamjars and pebbles.