I must admit to a cavalier attitude toward chapter divisions. In several of my novels, I assigned them without much thought and didn’t bother giving them titles. Numbers were enough. When I started reading a lot of ebooks, though, I realized that chapter titles make it easier to navigate within an ebook, because they remind you of key incidents in case you need to go back and check a detail. The 19th century convention of providing a mini-synopsis of each chapter in the table of contents would be helpful for the ebook reader.
I wrote She Who Comes Forth chapter by chapter, but while writing the first draft of my current WIP, I didn’t give chapters much thought. When I turned the handwritten manuscript into a Word document, I stuck in asterisks and blank lines between scenes, but I don’t want to have as many chapters as this would produce. Really short chapters may be right for some books, but not this one.
As I’ve worked through the first 40% of the second draft, I took a stab at adding chapter breaks. Both where the breaks happen and the chapter titles are subject to change. In fact, I really should have saved this task until the work as a whole was closer to completion.
It seems natural to insert a chapter break right after a conclusion of some sort, such as the end of a party, an outing, or an argument, at the point where something is figured out or resolved. With this approach, if you picture the plot of a story as a series of waves of different heights, chapters should end in the troughs.
The problem with this is that it may create a series of letdowns for readers. After a conclusive chapter ending, something new and intriguing is needed at the start of the next one to re-inflate the balloon of readers’ expectations. Readers are most likely to stop reading if a beginning isn’t compelling enough. Why would we want to create this sort of challenge for ourselves and our readers?
Recently I read a piece of advice to the effect that every chapter must end with a cliffhanger, because we writers must assume that our readers are so fickle they must be tantalized into reading on, with the ultimate goal of a review that says, “This book is a total page-turner. I couldn’t put it down.” Which suggests that a chapter should end, and the next one begin, at the top of a wave.
For books other than thrillers, the term “cliffhanger” stretches to cover more situations than life-or-death physical perils. Maybe it’s better to suggest that each chapter ends with something intriguing, a question planted in the reader’s brain to ensure that they read the next one, and the next and the next. But distorting a perfectly good plot simply to engineer cliffhangers seems like a bad idea to me.
If the book isn’t a thriller full of perilous situations, the writer may wish to consider ending chapters at points where a question arises. What’s in the letter that just arrived? How will Character A react to the provocative comment by Character B? What will the characters do when their car breaks down during the outing? The idea is to end the chapter on the rising side of a trough, not at the bottom.
Instead of contriving cliffhanger-type situations, find them where they already exist in the work and place chapter endings there, in situations of questioning, uncertainty, revelation, and rising tension. Those should be there already, so why not make use of them?
A confession–as a reader, I don’t care much about chapters. I can stop reading anywhere, knowing the book will be there in a few minutes or the next day, and I can pick up where I left off. Once I’m committed to reading a book, I read to the end, even if I don’t find it enthralling. A book has to be abysmal (in my opinion) before I throw it on the DNF pile. Chapters with titles are useful, as I’ve already noted, but mainly as a way of labelling key events in the story for reference.
I wrote and scheduled this post a week ago. It’s entirely coincidental that THIS OTHER POST on the same topic, but with a different emphasis, appeared almost at the same time.
How do you deal with chapters? Carefully or casually? Numbers, titles, or both? And when you read, do you always read to the end of a chapter before stopping?