The Mush Factor

I’m tilting at windmills here. I’m against chapters. I know you love ’em. Thus the tilting. Eventually we’ve got to make up tidy little chapters. But I’m against forming them too soon.

For me, the experience of writing a novel is a close-up encounter with packets of drama: scenes. Those of you who’ve been following this blog have heard me preach about writing in scenes. (Actions taking place in a specific time and place.) It helps you sustain narrative drive and reader interest.

So why are you writing in chapters?

It’s true that we end up writing in scenes anyway; everything happens in a specific time and place after all. You’re probably just chaining them together as you go: Chapter 6, with its three quick scenes. Then Chapter 7 with two . . .

Now here I am telling you to number each scene at the top of the page and do a hard return at the end of the scene. What difference does it make?

The mushy scene

Mush creeps in so easily. The protagonist sipping tea, walking up to the old house, all those finger-warm ups that are so useful when we sit down to write at 8 a.m., but which need to be cut later. We need to arm ourselves against these pace-killers, but chapters are not our friends in this. They create ambiguity. Chapters have no structural meaning. They serve no dramatic purpose, and therefore add nothing to your grasp of your story.  During the first draft, chapters can lead you astray.

Chapters lack structural meaning because aside from telling you when to pump up an exit line, they are simply linked scenes. You could put three links together or two or five. It often doesn’t matter; and if it does matter, you’ll do it correctly at the end when you form chapters. Writing the first draft in chapters encourages non-essential riffs like:

  • “As she stared out the window, seeing her reflection in the black glass, she saw a frowning woman. When had she become so cross? Surely the chief of staff wasn’t going to fire her . . . or was he?”
  • “That night Evan walked down to the river and tried to bring his raging resentment under control. . . .”

And so on for half a page. It doesn’t feel like a mistake to include this extended musing; it’s just a little extra and we are soon on to a real scene. But wait. How many little pointless pace-killers are hiding in that chapter? If that moment with Evan at the river was Scene # 22, you’d zero in and cut it down or even eliminate it.

I know, I know, the “Chapter 14” heading makes the manuscript look so publishable.  It helps us dream of a real book. Hey, I’m with you on that one; but sadly, it may not be worth it, given its teensy downsides.

The shapeless scene

Like sweat pants, chapters hide shape. Chapter three: this happens, and this happens, and this. That’s an important chapter, you decide. Yes, a few things did happen, but how many scenes was that? Did you give each scene a goal, a turning point, setting and climax? A significant forwarding of the plot? Well, perhaps not the middle chunk. . . the one hiding between the discovery of the cell phone with the stunning voice message and the frantic cab ride to the daughter’s high school. Perhaps it’s the one where Sasha sits down over tea to consider whether to admit she snooped on her daughter’s phone . . . oops, that sipping tea bit just slipped in there, didn’t it?

Because its blemishes were hidden inside a chapter.

The trivial scene

Chapters can make it easy to write short, superficial scenes. We don’t pause over each scene long enough to give it emotional impact, whether of insight, tenderness, fear or surprise. Though not every scene is of equal weight, we want to at least consider if there are thematic implications for the scene. Of course trivial scenes can happen to your writing no matter how you approach your first draft. We can’t blame everything on chapters.

But I hope I have persuaded you to at least question the primacy of first draft chapters.

And now . . . (drum roll) chapters!

In your 2nd or 3rd draft, form chapters by combining scenes. Write bridging phrases or just use a paragraph break and a # mark. Use this phase to move scenes around (especially helpful if you have subplots) and, yes, pump up the chapter endings. If you use chapter titles or opening quotes, here’s when you insert them.

However, if you really love writing in chapters, you must carry on, of course. I only submit these ideas to be helpful (and evil!)

Also see:

Writing in Scenes, Part 1

Writing in Scenes, Part 2

The Essential Scene List



14 Responses

  1. Tiyana says:

    I think this is really great advice, Kay. Usually I write in scenes, but I’ve found that when I do write in chapters I tend to add extra details and exposition, just because I think I can fit more into a chapter than I can a scene. It’s a weird psychological thing, I guess. Writing in scenes just makes it easier to stay focused on the bigger story.

    You also mentioned subplots briefly. This is an area, for me, where it’s especially easy to start straying, developing characters and relationships though not necessarily contributing to the larger plot. I’m not sure if you’ve done so in the past, but would you ever consider doing an article on subplots and their relevance to the main plot in the future? 😀

  2. Hello Kay,
    Thanks for the article.
    I realize that I’m close to the beginning of my career but I’m going to stick my neck out anyway. I like writing in chapters.
    Chapters provide structure and, as you alluded, make it easier to place hooks. If I write in chapters, each chapter needs to be about something. I can hold up a chapter and ask ‘does this chapter: reveal character, does it advance the plot, does it further build my world’?*
    Chapters give me as a reader and as a writer a stopping place. They let me control the pace or try to. A long chapter allows the reader to get more immersed in the world and in the character. Shorter chapters propel plot forward.
    I suppose I find writing in scenes ‘mushy’. I think and write linearly and, at least with my most recent work, I knew where I was going and what scenes I wanted and where. My attempts to rearrange scenes and link them together** into new chapters always feel artificial and I end up just rewriting the whole bloody chapter from scratch. That could be a failure in craft, of course; time and practice will help there.
    Still, this was good food for thought. If nothing else, it has me wondering where I have mush hidden and how best to dig it out.

    Thanks sincerely,

    Mark Andrew Edwards

    *Though I try to ask the same question of my scenes.
    **Funny you should mention that, I just finished trying that last week.

  3. J. Noel says:

    I had to read this post a couple times, as my brain was really working to apply it. It really makes sense to me, as I am finishing my 1st draft, and I’m constantly moving things around.

    I do think in small segments, or scenes, and I structure them to have a beginning, middle, and an end. I do write in chapters, only for the sole purpose of keeping my writing straight – to be able to see each section one at a time for reference and plot tracking.

    But the chapter divisions are not well guarded borders, and I have to problem cutting out small scenes within a chapter or moving stuff around. But it is a pain in the a$$ having to re-number chapters after doing so.

  4. J. Noel says:

    Oops…tried to comment yesterday but had IT issues.

    Anyhoo, I write in chapters to keep scenes straight, but I end up moving stuff around and getting rid of some things.

    But “mush” is one of my pet peeves, so I don’t tend to write too many of those. I read an ebook by an up-and-coming indie author, and I just could not finish it because it seemed every chapter had mush.

    It seems between their traveling, the characters were having campouts and feasts. Boring.

  5. Kay says:

    Good idea. I’ll address subplots very soon, then.

  6. Kay says:

    I see some of your points. Particularly pacing. You’ve made me realize that I DO automatically link some scenes, because, they just have to be together, and the pace is lost if I make it a hard return. I just don’t don’t do it automatically. So thanks for keeping me honest! But, for my own part, I would wonder if a chapter has to be about something. I usually have several subplots, and I like to link scenes with another POV scene sometimes. So the chapters as an entity most of the time will not have a purpose.
    But everyone has a process that seems productive to them. It may be that for most people chapters offer overriding benefits. It must be so, or I would not be in such a minority!

  7. Kay says:

    Jay, please look at the discussion below. This is kind of a complicated issue. Renumbering chapters is a great pain, and I wish I’d remembered to mention it in my blog.

    I know that not writing in chapters is kind of a goofy idea on the surface of it. It really is farther than most people want to go. I’ve been numbering scenes for 15 years, so it’s my process by now. Most people hate the idea, so that’s why I said I was tilting at windmills.

  8. Kay says:

    Wow, I’ll add those to my list of mushy scenes: campouts and feasts (the latter presumably fantasy?)

  9. Jeff says:

    Link to “The Essential Scene List” is wrong; it takes one to admin page

    But everything else is great 🙂

  10. Kay says:

    Jeff: Thanks very much for telling me!

  11. About the only use I have for chapters is to have a stopping point somewhere. In print books, if you have a chapter not longer than, say, 10 pages (5 double-sided), the reader can twitch ahead and say, “Not too long. I’ll just read another chapter,” and you’ve got someone staying up real late reading your work.

    In electronic books (not PDFs) I figure there’s no need for chapters. The reader (and I) can bookmark it wherever he leaves off — or the e-reader itself saves the spot.

  12. Kay says:

    No need for chapters? Hm. I still like them in ebooks, despite the ease of bookmarking. Maybe, though, it’s a tradition that will fade in time. Interesting to speculate on how ebooks will change our expectations for “pauses” in the story.

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