27

Life doesn't happen in chapters — at least, not regular ones. Nor do movies. Homer didn't write in chapters. I can see what their purpose is in children's books ("I'll read to the end of the chapter, and then you must go to sleep") but I'm blessed if I know what function they serve in books for adults - Terry Pratchett

If there isn't a clear break, or reason, between scenes or segments, then why have chapters at all? I'm asking this because I'm working on a novel that I would like to see flow in the way of a movie. Some scenes may be rather short, so I don't want to commit a whole chapter to it (similar to James Patterson's style).

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    Just FYI, Odyssey contains 24 "books", each similar to modern chapter in length. Iliad is also 24 "books" long. – Mołot Feb 16 '18 at 10:44
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    Plenty of novels have had chapters that are only one sentence. Committing a whole chapter to a scene isn't a big deal if you allow your chapters to be as short or as long as you like. – Paulpro Feb 16 '18 at 22:44
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    Even in movies, a scene can be a somewhat vague concept. A better analogue for chapters in movies might be sequences. A sequence might be a single scene or a series of consecutive scenes--nothing says a chapter must correspond to a scene. Sequences in movies or novels can be a useful building block for plotting, pacing, etc. – Adrian McCarthy Feb 17 '18 at 5:39
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    Life does happen in chapters. At the very least, you go to sleep at night. In the morning — boom, new chapter. But you might also pause during the day to take a break, catch your breath, maybe meditate. These, to me, are the chapter breaks of life. – David Conrad Feb 17 '18 at 12:27
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    People like me who don't use bookmarks will hate you for not having chapters. – Pierre Arlaud Feb 19 '18 at 8:45
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A

The benefit of using chapters isn't related to the storytelling, but rather to the comfort of the reader.

It provides an easily identifiable break in the story. If a reader needs to put down their book, they will generally prefer to do so between two separate scenes; as opposed to mid-scene or even mid-conversation.

If you leave the story mid-conversation, you need to remember what you have already read (in order to be able to pick it up again). Chapter breaks, however, signal to the reader that this is a break point which minimizes the need for remembering specific details.

Imagine if a theatre play would go to intermission mid-conversation. And when the intermission is over, they would pick up where they left off. Many people would struggle with getting back up to speed with the conversation that was halted.
While the issue is less pressing for book readers compared to a theatre crowd (you can re-read a page, you can't ask the actors to rewind the play), the issue remains the same.


Secondly, chapter breaks also make the text appear more reader-friendly. To showcase this point; tell me whether you found A, B or C easier to read.


B

The benefit of using chapters isn't related to the storytelling, but rather to the comfort of the reader. It provides an easily identifiable break in the story. If a reader needs to put down their book, they will generally prefer to do so between two separate scenes; as opposed to mid-scene or even mid-conversation. If you leave the story mid-conversation, you need to remember what you have already read (in order to be able to pick it up again). Chapter breaks, however, signal to the reader that this is a break point which minimizes the need for remembering specific details. Imagine if a theatre play would go to intermission mid-conversation. And when the intermission is over, they would pick up where they left off. Many people would struggle with getting back up to speed with the conversation that was halted. While the issue is less pressing for book readers compared to a theatre crowd (you can re-read a page, you can't ask the actors to rewind the play), the issue remains the same.


C

The benefit of using chapters isn't related to the storytelling but rather to the comfort of the reader It provides an easily identifiable break in the story If a reader needs to put down their book they will generally prefer to do so between two separate scenes as opposed to mid-scene or even mid-conversation If you leave the story mid-conversation you need to remember what you have already read (in order to be able to pick it up again) Chapter breaks however signal to the reader that this is a break point which minimizes the need for remembering specific details Imagine if a theatre play would go to intermission mid-conversation And when the intermission is over they would pick up where they left off Many people would struggle with getting back up to speed with the conversation that was halted While the issue is less pressing for book readers compared to a theatre crowd (you can re-read a page you can't ask the actors to rewind the play) the issue remains the same


I hope you agree that A was considerably less daunting to read than B (let alone C).

Chapters break the story into chunks that are more easily digestable. They serve the same purpose as paragraphs and punctuation, but on a larger scale.

Are they necessary? Maybe not. But their absence is likely to negatively impact a reader's opinion about your book and how well it reads.

As another answer has mentioned; it doesn't need to be chapters. The black line in the Discworld novel serves the same purpose, without technically being called a chapter. I would argue that the sole benefit of having chapters start on a new page is to make it easier to spot the beginning and end of chapters, as well as making page-indexing a bit clearer.

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    Imagine if Netflix streamed the entire House of Cards series as one video, rather than splitting it into episodes. – Acccumulation Feb 16 '18 at 22:21
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    Removing punctuation changes semantics so that's not a particularly good example, but overall I like the approach you've taken with this answer (which also happens to be correct). – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 17 '18 at 1:08
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit I intentionally left the capitalization to hinder readability but still hint at the separation of the sentences :) – Flater Feb 17 '18 at 8:26
  • No doubt in its [chapters] absence it will more likely have a negative impact. Unless you are some like Terry Pratchett, publishers would probably not accept it if you are debuting author. I remember reading somewhere that even with him, publishers really didn't like him not using chapters. – Carlo Feb 20 '18 at 10:54
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Technically, no. Most novels use them, but I've read some Discworld novels that just have a black line occasionally to break things up. You may also wish to consider writing an epistolary novel, which is a series of fictional documents such as letters (e.g. The Color Purple) or diary entries (e.g. Flowers for Algernon). That gives an arguably more natural, or at least human, division. By the way, those two books are great examples of how to really make this technique work, if you want to learn it; I once wrote an essay comparing them just on that.

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    Of course you could consider each letter or diary entry its own chapter. – celtschk Feb 16 '18 at 9:07
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    @celtschk You could, but given entries' lengths, how consecutive entries relate to each other (especially if their authors are different) etc. you might feel the equivalent of a chapter is some variable number of documents, or even that there isn't anything chapter-like in an epistolary novel. – J.G. Feb 16 '18 at 9:11
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    Famously, the literary critic Tom Paulin's criticism of Pratchett was "A complete amateur... doesn't even write in chapters", which has been printed on every Pratchett book since then. :) – Graham Feb 16 '18 at 13:42
  • @J.G. It would be interesting if there was an epistolary 'Discworld' novel. How different that would be in comparison to the others. Has anyone done something like this: throw in an epistolary novel among more (for lack of a better term) straight forward ones which are all based in the same world? – Carlo Feb 17 '18 at 9:43
12

Chapters are not necessary, but help readers understand what is happening.

There ARE chapters in films, signaled by "establishing shots", the first orientation shot that tells the viewer the time/place has changed and a new scene will take place there. Typically the image fades out and fades in on a distinctly different scene, often (not always) a long shot of a building, city, planet, etc, before cutting to some closer setting (in a room, on a campus, etc). For examples of such a change:

  • from night and Alice opening her front door to find Bob, to a morning alarm clock (establish time and place) then a pull back to show Alice and Bob tangled naked in bed,
  • from Alice sitting in her office (during the day) angry, to cautiously exploring a darkened parking garage,
  • from the FBI briefing room to an open rural field in bright sunlight with everybody in assault gear, on stealth approach to a farmhouse.

Listen very closely to the soundtrack of the film a few seconds before these scene changes: You will (frequently) hear the soundtrack of the NEXT scene (or something in it, like an engine or teakettle) start to fade in while in the current scene dialogue has been completed and the scene wraps up. That is the done intentionally to prepare the reader viewer for a transition (and has something to do with physiological perception and how long it takes to recognize audio clues vs visual clues, and is something directors and sound engineers do, not writers).

These transitions cut out a big chunk of boring time (or explicit sexuality or violence not suited for the target audience). We don't need to see the FBI agents wrap up their meeting, go to the restroom, change into their gear, pile into the SUV and eat Fritos and debate whether Star Trek is "politically realistic" for an hour while they ride off to this remote farmhouse.

Chapter breaks in Novels serve a very similar purpose, they prevent confusion in readers. Like some movies, the chapter breaks when the POV character changes. In a Romantic Comedy (say You've Got Mail or Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally), the movie switches between the male protagonist and the female protagonist (there is often no explicit antagonist working against them, other than the environment and life circumstances that separate our lovers-to-be).

Alternatively, with a single POV in a novel, the chapter changes for several reasons; the most common being:

  • a passage of time and/or place (or setting; eg outdoors to indoors, a classroom on Earth to the bridge of a starship, USA to France, etc).
  • to skip over boring investigations or preparations begun in the previous chapter,
  • A discrete "fade to black" because the author finds explicit sex scenes cheesy,
  • To change the tempo or style of writing; e.g. to exposition about the long passage of time, or a trip, that the author does not want to excise completely with a jump but also does not want to portray in "real time" with dialogue and POV character thoughts. So the author can describe the trip and its hardships. By "trip" I mean even figurative trips, for example an eight month hospital stay with multiple surgeries. The author could say "eight months and three surgeries later," or, "Josh lay in a hospital bed for two months and endured six more of painful rehab and trauma therapy." But that experience surely changes Josh and those transitions do not capture or explain the "new Josh" that wheels himself out of the hospital eight months later.

I am sure there are many other good reasons to break to a new chapter, these are off the top of my head.

They exist for much the same reason establishing shots and scene breaks exist in film; we don't watch the entire trip of Luke getting to Yoda, it just so happens that whenever Luke has to do something boring, Hans Solo is doing something interesting, and vice versa! A wonderful co-inki-dink.

We write chapter breaks for reader clarity. They can be one sentence long (there are famous examples), or very long. They help orient readers quickly and accurately, put them in the right frame of mind to mentally wrap up the previous chapter as "done" and start a new scene with expectations of needing a re-orientation of where and when the story is, and which characters are involved.

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    Re-orientation is a great argument for the use of chapters, indeed. – Carlo Feb 20 '18 at 10:56
8

In addition to the other answers, chapters help with finding things in books.

Chapter numbers don't change between different prints of a book, or different translations, or different resolutions of your screen if it's online. This makes it possible to talk about the same book with someone else without using events from the book.

Chapters with titles make it easier to find your place in a book if you've lost it (your bookmark falls out) or you want to find a particular scene.

7

I think chapters make a good breakpoint in the flow. I often read if I'm on my way home, or at home. Since I'm not living alone, it often happens that something unexpected pops up. If you want to break inside the text, it is sure possible, but if I open up the book I have to search for the part where I stoped and in the bad case szenario I have to reread a whole paragraph, just because I missed something or didn't remember clearly.

Chapters make good breakpoints for readers and makes it easier to follow the story. Chapters are commonly closed with cliffhangers, reveals or something else that keeps in mind. The reader breaks at the end of the chapter and tries to imagine what will happen to the cars. So chapters are a good way to keep your readers in the flow and think about your story. But that is just my opinion. But I've never seen or read a novel, that has no chapters, so it is just how I imagine it.

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    You may finish the chapter a few minutes before arriving home. Or arrive home and have a couple pages left. Also, if something unexpected pops up, it would be a great concidence that it happens exactly between chapters, so you would have to do the same search. Could you further clarify what you mean by this? I think of chapters more of like "suggestions" to plan your reading sessions around and eventually break the "One more page syndrome" I so often have with books like Discworld. – xDaizu Feb 16 '18 at 11:16
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    @xDaizu: Not every reason to stop reading is a pressing matter. It may be a passing thought, e.g. "I'd like to get a fresh cup of coffee." By seeing if they're close to a chapter break, a reader can evaluate for themselves when to get that cup of coffee. Chapter breaks don't prevent having to stop reading for pressing issues; but they do facilitate scheduling non-pressing issues inbetween reading sessions. – Flater Feb 16 '18 at 12:42
3

Life doesn't happen in chapters — at least, not regular ones. Nor do movies. Homer didn't write in chapters. I can see what their purpose is in children's books ("I'll read to the end of the chapter, and then you must go to sleep") but I'm blessed if I know what function they serve in books for adults - Terry Pratchett

Life certainly happens in chapters (kindergarten - pre-school - school - uni - pre-children - post-children - different jobs etc.). Movies often happen in chapters (blatant examples like Tarantino; or anywhere there's a crass time or place change). TV series have obvious chapters. Homer did write in chapters/books.

And chapters serve exactly the function mentioned above, for adults, too - they are a pre-defined breaking point where it is a good place to lay the book away for a while, hopefully designed to give a small closure for any tension happening inside the chapter. They also give a very natural place to switch stuff around (e.g., switch time/place/primary character etc.).

So, the premise is just wrong. Or, to butcher a quote: it's just, like, his opinion, man.

  • I beg to differ, one's CV does not necessarily reflect one's life story, but only one of its facets. – undercat Feb 19 '18 at 6:22
  • It's definitely a way to mark passages in time. But there isn't a rule to say how we tell a story of one's life. Experiences can be told out of sequence, and may even encompass various life stages, like 'bleeding' over into the next (kindergarted into pre-school could be all aspects of one stage or experience). Just my thought. – Carlo Feb 20 '18 at 11:04
  • I love Tarantino, and I see your point. Awesome Big Lebowski quote, btw. And yes, it is his opinion, and not common. Hence the reason for my question. :) – Carlo Feb 20 '18 at 11:08
1

It is completely up to you. As you can see from the other answers there are advantages to both methods. To my mind you could simply use larger paragraph breaks occasionally, rather than headed chapters with names and/or numbers, if you want to keep the flow. Avoid changing the type of novel you want to write based on the ideas above though. I'm pretty sure that if you wanted to write an epistolary novel you would already have chosen to do so.

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    Bob, welcome to Writing.SE. Your answer provides little insight that is not already on the thread. – JP Chapleau Feb 16 '18 at 17:07
  • Hi Bob; please consider expanding this. – Neil Fein Feb 20 '18 at 15:50

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