Thursday, August 4, 2011

Chapter Breaks

I was reading a thought provoking article the other day about chapter breaks.  Provocatively titled "What everybody misses about chapter breaks," the article makes the point that an author should make the most of the partitioning of a book, not to give the reader a break, but the keep them reading. 

That's all well and good, but I suppose I tend to take a more procedural view of breaks.  That isn't to say I disagree with the sentiment, just that I think it's more complicated than that.  As with anything in writing, you can espouse one "right" way to do things and then come up with a million working exceptions.  There aren't really rules so much as guidelines.

Roz, the author of the linked article, says she doesn't even divide the chapters up until the very end.  At that point, she searches diligently for optimum placement.  I can see how this would be effective, however my writing process pushes me to a different approach.

In what I'm learning is perhaps an atypical practice, I like to write a chapter at a time and then ship each chapter off to my trusted alpha readers for immediate feedback.  I guess you could say that once I got over the hump of "don't want to share my work with anyone," I decided I don't need to wait until it is absolutely done before I share.  I'm pretty slow and deliberate when I write, more of a Dean Koontz than a Stephen King, so my drafts have above average polish.  I spend more time up front with the initial writing.  Most writers seem to invest that time later.  It's still time, any way you slice it.

I'm also a sequential writer.  That's a big part of it.  I tend to write from start to finish, without a whole lot of jumping around in scenes.  I'll take notes or sketch out ideas as other scenes come to mind, but I generally don't write out of order.  It's just what I've found works for me.

The point here is that my process lends itself well to choosing my breaks earlier.  I may go back later and shift them around to increase effect, but mostly I put them where I want them.  If you read my books, you'll probably notice that the chapters are roughly the same size too.  That, also, may be a bit atypical.  As a reader, outlier chapters drive me nuts.  I feel like it ruins the pacing.  If you've ever been in the middle of a chapter thinking "when is this chapter going to end," you know what I'm talking about.  It may be riveting, but maybe I need an emotional break before I can re-invest.  If a chapter always ends on a mini-climax... well it seems like an HBO series.  That's not bad, but it's not what I want to do.

Keeping roughly equal chapter sizes helps pace me as a writer.  It keeps me honest.  It keeps me efficient.  Some people enjoy really flowery descriptions and long chunks of prose.  They have a place, but that's not really me.  I'm writing fantasy, but I'm almost trying to do them as thrillers.  I think it's a different sort of approach.  A lot of fantasy writers really try to paint this huge picture.  I want to give you just enough to paint it yourself, and get on with the story.

My choice of chapter break size is very deliberate.  It keeps things moving.  It aligns with my writing process.  It allows the reader to anticipate what "sitting down to read a chapter" will mean, and hopefully avoids the feeling of "when is this chapter going to end."  I really try to end "appropriately" to keep you wanting to read the next chapter, but I don't want to be gimmicky about it.  It is only one small slice of the pie in my mind.

Maybe I'm one of everybody who is missing a key part of chapter breaks.  I like to think I'm purposefully valuing the other functions a little higher than your average writer.  I've had a lot of positive feedback over the years on my fiction blog posts.  I've tried to carry that success and formula into my novels.  I look at each chapter as a really long blog post.  That isn't to say they're informal or anything, but that I want to pack in gripping content and have that content bring you back, not mechanics strategically placed on the ends.  They're good when I can use them, but I'm not going to force it.  You can call it "staying true to my voice."

But maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe I'm devaluing the "bam" at the end of chapters.  If you've read my stuff (or even if you haven't), let me know what you think.  I want to keep learning.


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