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Old 12-11-2012, 05:55 AM   #1
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Playing games with chapters

When I paid for an appraisal on my first manuscript one of the comments was that I had too many chapters that ended flat. The impression that I got was that I was supposed to write my book like a TV movie, with some sort of cliff-hanger at every commercial break to make sure the audience comes back from their toilet break. One of what I thought were the more cynical comments, was that I shouldn't give the reader a reason to put the book down (this about a space-break between the main story and a flash-back sort of thing).

At the time I looked at those comments and thought: I'd not long finished reading such a book (and action novel in which you expect that sort of thing anyway), and found it annoying more than anything else ... but now I wonder if it was just that it was clumsily done. I've recently been reading some crime/mystery novels and getting through them somewhat faster that the books really justify (they've been good, but not really that good). And what I noticed was that many of the chapters stop mid-scene - so you read on because you know the scene's not over yet ... and, since you've started the next chapter you keep reading even when it turns dull for a while (there's a lot of location description in those novels).

Up to now, in my own work, I've tended to split chapters at the end of scenes. Yes, some of my scenes deliberately end on a high-note, particularly as I approach the climax(es) of the story, so some chapters also end on a high, but deliberately breaking scenes just to lead the reader on into the next chapter was not something I'd ever really considered.

One way out of this is Terry Pratchett's philosophy that life doesn't happen in chapters and so he simply doesn't have them in many of his books. But I've chosen not to take that path, so wondering with my next works whether I should reconsider my approach.

As the title of this thread suggests, I consider this play games with chapters (well, with the reader really). It's not placing chapter breaks in any truly logical location, it's picking the breaks for their effect on the reader. BUT, if it works, if it really does help the reader to report "I couldn't put it down", then perhaps it's a game worth playing.

What do you think?

Last edited by gmw; 12-11-2012 at 05:59 AM. Reason: typos
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Old 12-11-2012, 07:30 AM   #2
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Since you ask I think there are a variety of approaches to create narrative pull/flow/MDQ(major dramatic question)/whatever-you-want-to-call-it

One is the 'end the chapter with a question or cliff-hanger' -- this is very evident in Edgar Rice Burroughs work.

Some writers can do it properly and subtly(or not) and other can't. I think the more important thing rather than relying on this sort of 'trick' at the end of chapters is to gradually and continually resolve and reveal new questions/information that is relevant to the story/plot and keeps the reader asking 'and then what?' which will keep them reading. If the reader is not asking themselves these questions or even unconsciously wondering what happens next, they will throw the book across the room. (and hopefully it's not an iPad that they throw).
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Old 12-11-2012, 10:15 AM   #3
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Personally, I like to end chapters at the end of a scene, but I also like to ensure that some sort of question has been raised in the chapter so that the reader wants to keep reading.
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Old 12-11-2012, 11:45 AM   #4
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I find those sort of books annoying. The whole point of a chapter break is so that you can stop reading at that point if you want to. One thing I do like though, is where the next chapter starts with something that references what happened at the end of the previous chapter. I don't know what they are called, and it's easy to fall flat on your face doing it, but a bit like the scene breaks in the first Highlander film.
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Old 12-11-2012, 11:53 AM   #5
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I find those sort of books annoying. The whole point of a chapter break is so that you can stop reading at that point if you want to. .....


Yeah, take that!

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Old 12-11-2012, 08:01 PM   #6
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If you have a good story, then that will be reason enough to continue reading past a chapter break, OR why the Hell have chapters to begin with?

A chapter should provide a natural break where you switch to another set of characters in a separate venue, a separate time, etc.

Generally let the literal "cliff hangers" (where the heroine is clinging to a root at the edge of the cliff hoping her hero on his white stallion will soon ride up and grab her) be in the Kiddie's serial videos or movies.

"Gosh, here comes the T-Rex!" (Tune in next week for a new exciting Buster Brawn and Busty Beauty episode!
And Eat plenty of "Happy Pops" the cereal that pops happily all the way down!'

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Old 12-11-2012, 11:06 PM   #7
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Yes a book should have unresolved things that drive the reader forward (otherwise it's just a series of short stores). You could opt to do something like ERB with regular little reminders: "hey, don't forget Tarzan is in deep doo-doo". But what struck me, and inspired me to open this thread, was the realisation that - despite my own preferences - the trick of cutting mid-scene actually seemed to be working on me. I'd just turn over to see what it was she saw in that damn photo ... and then I'd keep reading because the author hadn't left me any convenient place to stop*. These weren't really climax areas, just the ongoing investigation. This was quite a different tactic to what I'd seen in the clumsy action novel, where it seemed obvious that the chapter had had a bit tacked onto the end to raise the stakes.

I agree with Mr Ploppy that - to me - chapters should be a convenient place to stop. But I can also see the side that says part of the object is to keep the reader reading ... and if that's the case then not giving the reader an easy-out seems like a smart tactic.

Am I the only gullible one here that falls for these tricks, despite not really liking or approving of them?

* Pratchett, for example, might not have chapters, but there are regular space-breaks between scenes.
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Old 12-12-2012, 06:28 AM   #8
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Yes, absolutely it works....when it's done right and ERB was the master!
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Old 12-12-2012, 06:39 AM   #9
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Quote:
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---------

Am I the only gullible one here that falls for these tricks, despite not really liking or approving of them?
Not really if it is well done, but we should fortify ourselves with the thought that "we authors are made of sterner stuff than to fall for that bit of conniving."
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Old 12-14-2012, 01:32 PM   #10
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I use both techniques. I like having cliff hangers sometimes and sometimes I don't. I try to keep my chapters between 5,200 and 5,700 words, so sometimes I have to work to arrange the chapter ending. Sometimes that means using a cliff hanger, and sometimes it means using a logical ending point.
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Old 12-14-2012, 06:42 PM   #11
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I use both techniques. I like having cliff hangers sometimes and sometimes I don't. I try to keep my chapters between 5,200 and 5,700 words, so sometimes I have to work to arrange the chapter ending. Sometimes that means using a cliff hanger, and sometimes it means using a logical ending point.
That's interesting. Why did you specifically choose 5200..5700 words per chapter?

I see my first book averages around 6800 words, but they vary quite a bit (one comes in under 3000). My second book average comes out over 10,000 words. I don't pick for length so much as just a "gut feel" that this was what I wanted together in one chapter.
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Old 12-14-2012, 07:30 PM   #12
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It is important not to employ too many artificial constraints. You should allow the story to ebb and flow as seems natural.

Usually you have so many things to keep straight anyway, and adding a word count, to me, seems over the top.
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Old 12-15-2012, 02:33 PM   #13
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That's interesting. Why did you specifically choose 5200..5700 words per chapter?

I see my first book averages around 6800 words, but they vary quite a bit (one comes in under 3000). My second book average comes out over 10,000 words. I don't pick for length so much as just a "gut feel" that this was what I wanted together in one chapter.
I'm almost 62, so I've read a lot of books in my lifetime. I've noticed that I find it easier to follow a book if the chapters are not too long. Very short chapters, a page or two, are ok for some genres, like romance, but mine are speculative fiction. I've also noticed that I write a tighter book by following this method. I've written chapters that are much longer and some that are much shorter, but this range works best for me.
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Old 12-15-2012, 07:02 PM   #14
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Well I'm not exactly a whipper-snapper myself, but I can't say I've ever drawn any correlation between chapter length and being able to follow the book that I'm reading. ... But I haven't been trying to write fiction for that long so I'm still trying to find out what works best for me - which is why I was curious about you being so specific.
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Old 12-15-2012, 10:53 PM   #15
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From a practical production viewpoint, and a reader's, too many chapters makes for an enormous TOC. In a pbook, a Contents chapter list two pages long is a pain, and its a bigger pain on an ereader.

Unless it's a very big book--150,000 words or more-- I would hesitate to go over 30 chapters. My ideal is about 20 or better yet around 12, but there's no reason why you can't have a lot of subchapters, which don't appear in the TOC.

Another thing worth thinking about. Do you need titles for chapters? There may be valid reasons in some books, but for the most part I am happy to have no titles, just numbers: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. (And please, no Roman numerals. I can read them, I was taught them at school, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Roman Empire is no more.)

As to length od chapter, it depends entirely on the narrative itself. Look at Anthony Powell, for instance. He wrote the 12-volume series "Music of Time", and the first novel in the sequence, A Question of Upbringing, had just 4 chapters for over 80,000 words. I think (without sifting through all 12 of them again) 4 chapters per novel was fairly standard, the maximum was I think 6.

But then, each chapter consisted of a long, carefully-plotted and worked out scene, usually with numerous characters present, or coming and going.

At the other extreme, E Phillips Oppenheim thought nothing of 50 or more chapters in a 90,000 word novel.

And, famously, Terry Pratchett seldom bothers with chapters at all, diving straight into the action and switching with great frequency between locations, characters and even times. His books are very difficult to get to work satisfactorily in ebook form due to the difficulty of getting that little navigation bar on the bottom working without chapter breaks.

I once tried on one of my Pratchett ebooks. Put the entire text into HTML, then arbitrarily divided the text into 20 roughly equal sections at convenient breaks, inserted an invisible anchor, and made a TOC for myself where, instead of chapters, I had approximate word count. Eg Position 6,000. Then recompiled as a Mobi.

It worked, but wasn't worth the effort.

Last edited by Pulpmeister; 12-15-2012 at 10:54 PM. Reason: grammar
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