Tuesday, 23 September 2014

When is a chapter not a chapter? (FOW 14)

I enjoyed Hal's sentence workshop so much, I also sat in his chapter one too. Now I hope I'm going to remember most of it - this session was held Sunday afternoon, I was tired and feeling pretty poorly by that point, so I struggled to take in a lot of the technical stuff that Hal was sharing. Hopefully, there'll be enough here to be of use to you...

Again, it sounds simple - a chapter is a chapter. It starts with a new character, a new scene, and it finishes with something that keeps the reader turning the page, like a cliffhanger - doesn't it? But Hal pointed out that sometimes, a 'chapter' lacks the substance or structure to make it work.

If you think in terms of scales of action, then a clause or sentence can provide an action. A paragraph often frames a set of actions, and a passage shows the development of the action. The way Hal described the process, it sounded very much like a dance of sorts...

We read a short passage, in which the narrator is in a tavern, observing the clientele and eyeing up an old man as a model for a painting. This represented the goal of the passage. The barkeeper interrupts the narrator to apologise for his room not being ready, producing a diversion. The narrator considers how he came to be in the situation he's in, reflecting on his circumstances. Then, as the old man stands to leave, our narrator makes his request, giving us the incident.

Goal - diversion - reflection - incident.


Step - sidestep - shuffle - strike!

For a complete story, we know we need a beginning, middle and end. Another way of describing it would be Exposition, Rising action, CLIMAX, Falling action, Denouement. Or even...

Story is the Triumph of Outcome! 

The beginning is why and how things didn't stay the same. The middle is why and how things could have gone elsewise. The end is why and how things ultimately came out this way.

But we need the same in our chapters too - they aren't just a series of events following in step; we need to add the twists and turns that provide the dance and drama. And nail the end beat if you want to nail the impact! A spur, turn, step, crunch combination (different terms for the step, sidestep, shuffle, strike!) will add that ingredient.

But beware... a 'crunch' is not always a  chapter ending. Neither are cliffhangers (though both can be used effectively providing you don't start the next chapter picking up where you left off!), or reflections where there is no incident. Be wary too of overchaptering - putting too many breaks in might mean you don't satisfy that useful combo of spur, turn, step, crunch. Unnatural breaks can lead to scene snaps rather than complete chapters.

To find your true chapters, ask yourself;

- Is there unity of time, place and event?
- Can you encapsulate the event - name it?
- Is there a major plot stride?
- Two major strides? Can one happen elsewhere?
- Can you describe it, beginning 'In which our hero...'?

I particularly like the thought of 'In which our hero...', because to me, that helps capture the essential essence of the chapter; a chapter synopsis, if you like. It reminds me of an exercise we did on the self-edit course, too. We had to think of the chapter as a triangle - action, reaction, result - which then has an impact on the next chapter because the result may well turn out the be the action that causes the next reaction, and so on. So thinking of StarMark, you'd get something like 'In which our heroine's grandmother orders our heroine to go to the city with a box of keepsakes and the name of a man who'll help her.'

How do YOU decide on your chapter breaks? Gut reaction? Cliffhanger? Because you don't know where else to put it? Feel free to share any hints and tips that work for you, too...


  1. Well, since you ask... I'm anti-chapter myself. Frequently, when I read a book, I think the chapter break is in a silly place and it is something that gets in my way between two paragraphs. I like parts. Where the book is chopped up into parts 1 to 3 or whatever, each in a different century or from a different person's p.o.v. I don't find chapters at all useful. I decide when I put the book down to come back later. it's not because it's the end of a chapter. Never is.

    However, with the novelly thing I'm currentlly trying to sell (which was originally written in five parts) yes I put in chapters purely to be conventional. I chose a favourite number and found what seemed to be conventional chaptery breaks of that number and stuck them in. If I ever get a publishing deal, the editors can do with the chapter breaks what they like. To me they will still be meaningless.

    But thanks for asking, oh Squidletty One.....xxxx FPeople

    1. Made me smile, FP...Have to say I don't mind books without chapter breaks - Terry Pratchett, for eg. There are lots of scene changes and breaks in his stories, but rarely formal chapter breaks. So it's another one of those 'rules that don't have to be rules' kind of situations.

  2. Most useful but I'm afraid I used up all of my cognitive intake capacity on the SE course for the next few months.

    My present WIP first draft was being written without chapter breaks until Stephen Terry's offer of publication demanded that I break it into chapters.

    Some were clear breaks but not so with other portions.
    I like FP's idea of parts,

    These snips are quite useful, S, so please keep em coming.

    Most best,

    1. There are a few more workshops to be posted yet, OFP - openings, the accidental funny, and how to plan a novel in a day!