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!)