Chapters! Unless you’ve been stuck on Green Eggs and Ham all your life, most likely you’ve come across them. They help us, as readers, take in longer works but giving some type of order and for the writers, it’s nice to have small goals to work for along the way.
But at times, including chapters into your narrative isn’t that simple. People utilize chapters in very different ways, so which is the best for you? Let’s see . . .
Different types of chapters I’ve encountered:
1) Traditional. Chapter 1. Chapter 2. And so on and so forth. If you made an outline of any given novel, the structure would most likely resemble the ordering of the chapters. They are simple and clear indicators to your audience that the story is moving along.
2) Titled chapters. You know the ones, where everytime you get to a new chapter there’s ‘The Beginning,’ ‘The Closet,’ ‘Jamie goes to jail,’ ‘Another chapter is born’ and titles like that. I did this for my first novel, and at the time there was no real clear reason why. Thinking back, it helped me keep track of each chapter’s content, before and after the actual writing.
Depending on what kinds of titles you have, it can give the reader an idea of what to expect. Or it can do just the opposite and create an aura of mystery. For example, in The Drawing of the Three, the three sections are called ‘The Prisoner,’ The Lady of Shadows,’ and ‘The Pusher,’ respectively. This planted a seed into my subconscious and throughout these sections I was trying to figure out what each was referring to. It was also done in an interesting way because the prisoner, the first section, starts off with a man trying to pass through customs with bags of heroine attached to armpits. So, naturally, I thoughthe would get caught and the section would be about him in jail. It turns out I was completely wrong and the prisoner had a different, deeper meaning. At the same time I am also confident in my belief that Stephen King meant for me to have that false expectation.
But chapter labels can also be kind of cheesy, so watch out for that. I got called on it and am considering either changing the titles or taking them out altogether.
3) Chapters and sub-chapters. I think of this in two ways: a) like the aforementioned King book where the novel is divided into a few large sections, each of which is further divided into chapters, or sub-sections and b) the book is divided into regularly sized chapters, but those chapters have smaller parts themselves.
Let’s think about the first. Dividing your novel in this way can be a good technique, but should not be used frivolously. It helps when your novel deals with different main themes, settings, or plot points that are distinct enough to warrant seperation. For example, in The Drawing of the Three, Roland has the task of bringing three people from our world in to his. So, appropriately, there are three main sections. Other examples may include dealing with a certain individual’s lifespan and the want to emphasize different key phases in their lives.
For the second kind, I’ve seen this be effective when your narrative has a lot of small jumps. For example, in one of my novels that I am editing I am having trouble with ‘in-between’ time. By this I mean that my character may have a significant conflict when he wakes up in the morning but nothing else interesting again until night time. I find myself wondering if I am making up for all the un-narrated time in this character’s life, and I end up having a lot of double spaces, or soft section breaks. By dividing up each chapter into smaller sections (easily denoted by a ‘1, 2, 3, etc’ that doesn’t even break the page) I can get the reader in the habit of expecting these short lapses. It will also allow me to delete all the filler junk I had put in to make up for it.
4) Date. As I mentioned last week, I am currently reading Warren Fahy’s Fragment. Instead of being broken up in to chapters, the book is organized by narrative’s timeline. I’ve seen this a lot in thrillers, especially types that have some sort of time sensitivity or countdown (The Davinci Code, for example). It is also a characteristic of more scientific novels, as the notation is redolent of a log of events, like those kept during experiments or during important spans of time. That’s not all, though. If you find yourself switching perspectives in your novel frequently, adopting this way of splitting up your story will go easier on your reader’s brain.
What I like about it: I am especially fond of this one for that last reason. While I have yet to use time stamps in place of chapters, I’ve found that it makes perspective-jumps less distracting. Like it or not, there’s a stigma about each ‘chapter’ in a chapter-book holding significant weight for the overall plot. So how do you organize a bunch of perspective changes? If you divide them each by chapters, then some of your chapters will be ridiculously short and that looks amateurish. You could just seperate them by an extra space, but too many of those can look sloppy. By using the time and date, you can have two-sections that do not feel cheap or out of place. Also, when reading through Fragment I found it was a great help in keeping a control on when and where things were happening.
My best advice for deciding which method of chapters is best for you is the same advice I’d have for anything writing related: read, read, read! See how other author’s do it and, most importantly, ask yourself why! If two books are organized with completely different methods, make sure you know what the advantages and disadvantages of each are, and how those apply to the story they were trying to tell. And then, the rest is up to you!