Tuesday, 7 August 2012

5 Reasons Why Not To Write In Chapters

As a new writer, it seems pretty obvious: you write 20 chapters of 4,000-5,000 words each and you have a book of 80,000-100,000 words.  What could be be easier?  What could go wrong?

1.  A novel made up of consistently 4,000-5,000 words would be dull to read.  You want to mix it up a bit, a few short chapters here, a few long chapters there.  Keep the reader on their toes so they don't know what's coming next.

2.  Chapters can control pace.  Short chapters speed things up, long chapters slow them down.  A long chapter at a relatively action free moment will cause the pace to falter.  A series of super short chapters at a very exciting moment will make the pace so fast you risk losing the reader as they can't take it all in.

3.  If you've planned your novel out in chapters, you've almost certainly made the end of each chapter the end of a scene ie the action has peaked and fallen. Chapter ends are what keep the reader reading as they think, hmm, I'll just start the next chapter and see what happens - and then they're hooked.  Good chapter ends are often made by ruthlessly cutting scenes short so they end at a tense moment.

4.  Having your chapters planned out from the start makes you more reluctant to re-write and move scenes around.  All books need this to a certain extent and some - such as memoirs - often benefit from really moving scenes around so you go middle, beginning, end, rather than beginning, middle, end.  You won't do this if it mucks up your beautiful chapter plan, even though the story demands it.

5.  Chapters are a way of breaking a novel down into nicely manageable chunks for the reader - you yourself may read a chapter or two each evening before you go to sleep.  But you're not the reader any more, you're the writer and you want the reader to stay up all night hooked on reading your fabulous book. Thinking of it in scenes will help in this.

If this seems scary, make each scene you write a chapter, and then later combine them.  When you've sorted out the story you can play around with where the chapters should come for the most impact.


Jim Murdoch said...

Not being a planner I’ve never given chapters much thought. I treat them like long paragraphs; once I’ve competed a ‘thought’ I move onto a new one. Some are long, others short. My second novel is only a page longer than my first book; the first has eighteen chapters, the second eleven. The third book which is almost as long as the preceding two is in four parts but only the first is broken down into chapters. As a reader I prefer short chapters. I also prefer short books. Never been able to write that way though. One of the best page-turners I ever read was probably about 60,000 words long and had 43 chapters. When you know the next chapter you’re going to read is only four or five pages long it’s so easy to say, “What the heck. I just read another one.” That’s what I hate about ebooks by the way, the fact you can’t flick ahead as easily as see how long the next chapters is. Yes, you’ve got that wee scale at the bottom but it’s next to useless.

Diane Fordham said...

Excellent post Sarah. I cringe when I read novels of the 'never ending chapter'. I like the way you explained how to balance out the chapters. Thank you :-)

Jan Sprenger said...

Sarah, I remember you discussing this at a conference and it really stuck with me.

Do you think it's okay to cut a chapter mid-scene? Or should a scene be completed with a cliff-hanger and the next chapter start in another location?


Sarah Duncan said...

Jim - I so agree with you about ebooks and not being able to see where you are with them. The art of writing page turners is getting the reader to think 'I'll just read another one'. I don't plan my chapters either, they're the last thing I do to the ms.

Diane - yes, even the best of writers can write overlong chapters that drag.

Jan - I think you can cut mid-scene, but it's best to allow some time to pass before starting again in the next chapter. If you read stuff where it's just cut then carries on, it gives an odd, slightly jarring effect. MInd you, if you read Alice in Wonderland, that has the story continuing over the chapters and that hasn't done too badly...