Monday, March 20, 2006

What To Do About Chapters?

One of Miss Snark's Snarklings posed a question over the weekend that resonated with me. Here, in part, is what he said:

"Is it necessary to have a novel broken down into chapters...? I don't write with specific chapters and chapter breaks in mind, is this something I should concentrate on doing?"

The question caught my attention because I also had a problem with chapter breaks early on in my writing career.

The first things I ever published were non-fiction articles. From there, I moved to selling short romantic stories. When I began to write novel-length fiction a few years ago, it was my first real experience with writing anything long enough to require chapter breaks.

It seemed intuitive to me to break the chapters off at a logical stopping place. Therefore, the first novel I wrote had chapters that ended with the protagonist going to bed at night. Made sense to me. I thought of a chapter as constituting a portion of a day with the break at a logical stopping place--like lunch or bedtime.

It wasn't until I got into critique groups and had the benefit of critiques by published writers that my problem with chapter breaks began to emerge. Another writer pointed out that I was stopping chapters on a "down" beat. She said that she tried to always break off her chapters and scenes at a moment when a reader would be so engrossed that s/he would have to turn the page to read on.

I was surprised by this assessment and began to study chapter breaks in published novels. To my complete and utter surprise, I found that the books I considered the most exciting used my friend's technique. I began to revise my expectation for my own chapters.

Today, I think of the chapters as mini-plays of their own with their own arc and denouement. For the record, the word "denouement" comes from the French and means "unknotting" or "unwinding." Dr. Kip Wheeler defines denouement as the outcome or result of a complex situation or sequence of events. I try to place the chapter break right before that denouement so that my reader is forced to turn the page to find out what happens next.

I tend to write short chapters with very few scenes within each--no more than two or three. Rarely does one of my chapters exceed twenty manuscript pages. And I always try to end the chapter on an "upbeat" rather than a "downbeat."

I just looked at the first three chapters of my sequel to Witch Vampire. The first chapter ends with the heroine attacking her assailant. The denouement will be the result of that attack. The second chapter ends with the hero appearing unexpectedly outside the heroine's bedroom. The denouement will be whether she lets him in. The third chapter ends at a critical moment in an argument between the hero and heroine. The denouement will be who wins the argument.

Keep in mind that I am a pantser--as in writing by the seat of my pants. I start each chapter completing the denouement that my chapter break led up to. Then I start the story arc for the new chapter. I find that thinking of each chapter as its own little play provides structure and focus to my efforts. If I have a less than satisfactory chapter ending, I may tinker with it for a while or I may choose to go on, knowing that I will have to "repair" it later.

Invariably, my in-person critique partners demand that I read my chapter out loud first when we get together because they want to know what happened since I last read to the group. That tells me I'm on the right track. If they don't want to know what happened, it's back to the drawing board for me.

1 comment:

Sherrill Quinn said...

I'm mostly a pantser, too, Maya. Although I have a "light" chapter outline, I usually don't end up adhering to it completely. My chapters also tend to be, um, not lengthy--the longest one I've written to date is 22 pages. And I find I write best if I put the chapter breaks in as I write, versus writing and writing and writing, then going back and trying to figure out where to break the chapters.

Great post!