Rules for Chapters

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Keith
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Rules for Chapters

Post by Keith » December 17th, 2009, 7:30 pm

Hi, All.

What's the deal with chapters? I know from reading, of course, that a book can contain chapters as short as one page squeezed in between much longer chapters. But it seems that the rules are different for established authors and unpublished first-timers. For example, there are novels that come in at 180,000 words or more, yet we are told that agents and publishers prefer 110,000 for a virgin manuscript. So even though Pat Conroy may be able to get away with a helter skelter mix of chapter lengths, are we novices expected to adhere to any rules for construction of chapters?

Do chapters need to be similar in length? Is there a rhythm of some sort?

Did Nathan ever cover rules for chapters in his blog? If he did, I couldn't find it.

Thanks,
Keith

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shadow
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Re: Rules for Chapters

Post by shadow » December 17th, 2009, 8:00 pm

The main importance is stopping at the right scene, no matter the length! It's the story that is important. I do not tend to panic over the length of my chapters but they all end up between 2000-5000 words, and my novel is 90000 words. Some are shorter and some are a bit over the 5 k but it all depends. Do not cut off a scene just because of length and do not extend a scene for length! Happy writing!
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polymath
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Re: Rules for Chapters

Post by polymath » December 18th, 2009, 12:38 am

I've noted that good chapter breaks occur when a dramatic unit is completed. Ideally, a chapter ought to stand on its own as a self-contained story when excerpted. Not all that rare to be able to do that with a published novel, but not as common it would seem as a best practice to follow.
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ElisabethMoore
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Re: Rules for Chapters

Post by ElisabethMoore » December 18th, 2009, 1:25 am

polymath wrote:I've noted that good chapter breaks occur when a dramatic unit is completed. Ideally, a chapter ought to stand on its own as a self-contained story when excerpted. Not all that rare to be able to do that with a published novel, but not as common it would seem as a best practice to follow.
I don't know if I agree with this. I have been paying particular attention to chapter ends in a recently published urban fantasy in my blog lately. Every chapter I have examined so far ends in a hook for the scene that will open the next chapter, and one ends in a cliffhanger. Also, while there are time lapses between scenes with breaks shown by blank line in the midst of each chapter, chapter ends are time continuous to the next chapters' beginnings in the book I am examining. Granted this is just one book, as I generally don't notice exactly how chaptering is done in the midst of reading for fun. Perhaps I will revisit this thread in a few months after examining more books for structure on my blog. :)

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Re: Rules for Chapters

Post by casnow » December 18th, 2009, 2:12 am

I remember reading a John Grisham interview where he said that he tried to make every chapter where it could stand alone. You could read it, stop at the end, and feel like something (obviously not the whole story) had finished.

Or

You could go with the Kurt Vonnegut style and make all your chapters a paragraph long :)

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Re: Rules for Chapters

Post by Keith » December 18th, 2009, 2:59 pm

Yeah, that's an interesting debate on how to end a chapter. James Rollins (regardless of your opinion of him overall) is a master of ending every chapter with something to which you absolutely must know the answer. A cliffhanger. And that approach really propels his story forward, giving it a speed very unlike a more contemplative (i.e. "serious") story. Perhaps it just comes down to style. And genre.

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Re: Rules for Chapters

Post by Kaitlyne » December 19th, 2009, 3:56 am

I think the idea of "stand-alone" here is a good stopping point. In my mind, stand-alone means that you can read only that and it will make complete sense without any other context. I liked the phrase "end of the dramatic unit" personally.

I think a lot of times chapter breaks are meant to intrigue the reader to keep reading, but while offering a natural break in the story so that a reader doesn't have to stop in the middle of a scene and pick up there again, which can be kind of jarring (I stop mid-scene all the time though, and it never bothers me, though).

I personally judge chapters based on content. The first part of the chapters tend to be a bit lighter, and then they build up more and more to the end, and then the end is setting up the problem for the next chapter. I feel like there is generally a logical break, and if there isn't I don't put in chapters at all. I've had books written in parts instead of chapters, and I've read books that had no chapters whatsoever and were just divided into individual scenes.

I've honestly never really understood the concept that there is an ideal length or anything for chapters. Mine are crazy long (~10k, for the most part), but divided into shorter scenes. I couldn't imagine doing it differently, and honestly I don't understand the reasoning behind having shorter chapters instead. Maybe someone can explain it to me. :) The only time it has occurred to me to wonder if this is a bad thing or not is when I see agents request the first three chapters. I'm fairly certain they mean they want about 50 pages...my first three chapters are almost double that. ;)

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polymath
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Re: Rules for Chapters

Post by polymath » December 19th, 2009, 12:38 pm

In my writing world, the word rules is reserved for the self-imposed guidelines a writer places on himself. The term principles for guidance from the cloud consciousness of the collective writing and literature mind.

Literal cliffhangers, for example, are widely deprecated from overuse of that well-worn technique, but not altogether forbidden. Some stories insist on cliffhanger transitions. There's varying weights of cliffangers, ones that literally leave a heroine hanging from a cliff to dramatic unit transitions figuratively leaving a heroine and thus readers hanging from a cliff. Hollywood's "in-the-cut" transitions come to mind. A character says to her boss that she's taking time off to climb Mt. Everest. In-the-cut transition. Next we see our heroine at base camp saying to her guide that she's having difficutly breathing.

Softer transitions might be not quite as abruptly sweeping in time and space and magnitude. It's the need and method of transition that I base my breaking rules on. Sentence break, paragraph break, scene break with a line break, intercession break, subchapter break, chapter break, novel installment in a series break, whatever weight of break, my one rule is that the dramatic meaning introduced at the beginning of the dramatic unit be syntatically and meaningfully completed before a transition.
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D. G. Hudson
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Re: Rules for Chapters

Post by D. G. Hudson » December 22nd, 2009, 8:52 pm

A chapter should be written for a purpose, and this purpose should be evident to the reader. The length of the chapter depends on what the writer is trying to accomplish, and is influenced by his own style. Where some use minimal description and dialogue, others embellish the core message.

I would just worry about the storyline, and let the chapters sort themselves out in the revision process. If the story is great, will anyone worry about the chapters or their length? I doubt it.

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BransfordGroupie
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Re: Rules for Chapters

Post by BransfordGroupie » December 22nd, 2009, 9:45 pm

I have never really stressed about the length of my chapters. The shortest (and also the last) is only about 1000 words while the longest is about 8500 words. I place my chapter breaks where it feels right for me. I know that readers/agents/editors/publishers are all going to have different ideas where a chapter should finish. At the end of the day I know that if my agent (touch wood) absolutely loves my novel but cringes at my chapter breaks he/she is just going to suggest a better structure. I don't think he/she is going to reject a partial/full for that reason alone. At least I hope that is the case.
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