What does a chapter consist of?

Discussion in 'Writing' started by RedMage, Aug 16, 2012.

  1. RedMage

    RedMage There is no tomorrow

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    I was asked this question recently by a writer friend who (I believe) is not on SFFWorld. He asked me in a post on Facebook so I had some time to think about my answer before replying. Still, I told him I about my standard number of 10--20 pages, or it could be one scene or multiple but that multiple scenes in one chapter should be related in theme, location, pov, etc. I thought I had covered all the bases but, in the last few days, I have returned to the question and put it into the context of my own writing.

    I have a story which I have had plotted out for several months but which I cannot seem to write a word of. The chapters are all broken up into single scenes. I wrote summaries for nearly all of them about 1/2 page in length. When I look back at them I cannot help but think the entire scene has already been written in that little 1/2 page. In third person, of course, and all Telling. They are NOT actual scenes. More like:

    When I outline I will usually outline the highlights of the conversation about the dog and cat and, when writing the actual scene, I will expand from those highlights. I have none of these highlights in the summaries I have written. I tell myself chapters do not have to be 10 pages long, or even 5 pages. I tell myself what I told my Facebook friend. But when I look at the scene summaries all I can think is that any expansion will only make the I think this is seriously holding me back. I have written only two scenes (TWO!) on this book and, actually, I've started plotting Book 2. I even wrote the opening scene of Book 2! I feel ready to go with Book 2 but everything about it rests on Book 1. And I cannot write anything on Book 1.

    *Sigh* I think part of my problem may rest with the idea of what a chapter is. Does anyone else have any thoughts about chapters?

    ----------------
    Also, I searched and saw this thread on Chapters: Questions from a newbie already and found it to be a bit...supportive. But not in a way that is offering me support in my current quandary.

    I saw, too, multiple threads on chapter length, multiple pov's in chapters, and moving from an outline to a fully developed chapter. I am not interested in those as I do not have what I consider to be an outline, pov questions is another thread-worthy topic entirely for me, and chapter length is all about number of pages and while I am asking that I am asking about more as well.
     
  2. Igor

    Igor Ze vriter

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    For me, chapters are a set of events you find relevant to tell about one or more characters, with a related theme. I tend to keep them short, because longer than that, your action is probably spread slow.
    Igor
     
  3. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    You seem to be missing some text in your post.

    I seem to be saying this a lot lately -- you're looking at it backwards. You are looking at a chapter as something you have to do, a form you have to complete and manage, rather than as a simple tool you can use in whatever way you feel is helpful to present the narrative to the reader. You don't actually have to have any chapters in a novel. But you can get various effects if you use chapter breaks and beginnings. It can help with various structures. It is, for instance, an easy way to change pov, if you want to change pov that way, or to denote different time periods. Short chapters (5-10 ms. pages which boils down to 2-6 print pages usually) with single scenes or exposition produce different effects. Long chapters produce others. Long chapters with lots of section breaks, etc.

    For some authors, it is helpful not to have chapters at all when they write the first draft because it limits them. For others, designing chapters beforehand gives them narrative goal posts or helps them frame the story structure in their mind. What's in a chapter often gets changed around in rewrites.

    Thinking about broad story concepts is often more fun for your right brain than thinking about things in small detail. Having to sit down and write the small detail makes your right brain try to escape by thinking about Book #2 instead, and feeling that things have already moved on in your head now that you have a plan. That's not about chapters. It's about writing narrative and scenes. And it probably involves a bit of your Inner Weasel. So maybe for you, the key thing is not to have chapters at first. Maybe you should in fact throw out the outline altogether. If your right brain does not have to do the "homework" of writing exactly what you've outlined and instead can just play and interact with the left brain, possibly completely changing things from the initial plan, it might be happier writing narrative.

    Even if it isn't happy, making it sit there until it writes something should eventually get the wheels moving. It doesn't matter if it's crap, because it's draft. It doesn't even have to be complete -- it can still be those little fragments with notes to yourself, like "To Come: and then somehow he gets off the bridge." You'll go back and fill them in later, passing over and over until your brain coughs up something -- maybe something very different from the original fragments and notes. If your brain really, really wants to write Book #2 now? Try letting it write Book #2 for awhile. That may be what you need to do -- to work out stuff in Book #2 before you can write Book #1 because it shapes Book #1.

    As you write, you may find that you naturally write in segments that can become chapters or sections with section breaks in chapters, and that those may be long or short. Or you can divvy the narrative up into chapters later and clean up the beginnings and endings of the chapters because you've decided that frame looks nice.

    When plot comes to you easily -- and it does to some authors -- dealing with the actual words can be the scary sticky part. So you can try what bestselling fantasy author Tim Powers says is his process -- he makes deals with himself. He has intricate plots and he likes to outline. So then it's about expanding that outline. So he'll focus on writing a scene (not to be a chapter, just what he thinks comes next,) and he'll tell himself he can have a beer if he finishes the draft of the scene. It doesn't have to be good draft. He just has to finish one tiny bit. And then he can have a beer, or some other reward.

    Which relates to another famous anecdote which led to a guide on writing and creativity which may or may not be helpful -- Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. The story goes:

    You know that you need to focus on each bird, just the bird, one at a time -- a scene here (one bird,) a bit of transitional exposition there (one bird.) Your brain needs to focus on one bird at a time, but is getting overwhelmed by the scope of the whole project. So bird by bird, beer by beer might be what you need to try.

    Also, please stop worrying about telling. "Show, don't tell" is a con that's been hustled to authors for a long time now and it has nothing to do with writing narrative. Notes to yourself aren't telling or showing -- they are notes, not narrative. Narrative is a mix of scenic imagery (the five senses) and exposition (character thought that is not five senses, abstract imagery, information, emotion, etc.) Sometimes you'll have more of one or the other or less, depending on your style, your needs and your sense of what is working or not. All the styles used in fiction writing work. Really, they do. You'll find yours. So stop trying to shoehorn yourself into a write by numbers idea of writing style (unless you're just trying out a style for a writing exercise or class assignment to get the juices going.) Let's not bring the writing instructor's hat or the editor's hat in when you haven't written more than 500 words of the thing yet.

    So go look for one bird -- probably best to start with a scene. Choose a scene you really like in Book #1 that you've outlined, or a scene in Book #2 which you've sort of outlined, or try a scene that hasn't been outlined at all and that you might not even use. Tell your right brain that you would like a scene please. Anything at all. Absolute crap. Let your left brain help in making choices but not be super critical about them. Try not to get too analytical. Don't think about chapters at all. And then when your brain produces words that more or less make a messed up, fragmented scene, give yourself a beer, or chocolate, or what have you. Then you do it again. And again. And try to find a way that your brain will enjoy it or at least put out. That will tell you a lot of things about yourself as a writer and what your process is and your style and what your story is actually about (which again, may be completely different from what you've so far outlined.)
     
  4. RedMage

    RedMage There is no tomorrow

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    Wow, KatG, that is exactly what I needed to hear. All of it was. Thanks. (On a side note, you are really good at doing that. How DO you do that?)

    So as not to quote everything, some stuff I thought about there were:
    • No Chapters at all--I immediately thought of Terry Pratchett. This works awesome for him. And as my story takes place from Autumn through to Spring, I have thought in the past about grouping all scenes from one month together. A season (Autumn, Winter, Spring) would not do half so well.
    • Powers' rewards system--I am totally doing this!! Peanut butter candies, that's my choice. Starting tomorrow when I wake up!
    • Lamott's birds--You're right. I am looking a lot at the whole thing and not at each individual scene and I am getting overwhelmed. That is also a major problem for me. I just spent 3 and 1/2 years on another series, had multiple problems and a number of partial solutions and now I am thinking I need to set it all aside. If I do I don't know if I will ever return to it and that committment of time and effort and seeing it come to what it has does frighten me off from future projects. But ideas won't stop coming and I am not a short story writer. So I just need to get over it, focus on each scene individually and write from there. Using Powers' rewards system will help with this.
    • Write Book 2--I only started Book 2 because I had a tiny spark of inspiration for the very last lines of Book 1. But I couldn't stop after I wrote them because I knew, just knew, that Book 2 picked up right there without missing a beat. The inspiration continued and it was a natural flow of words, characters, and story all coming together. Book 2 feels good and natural and lovely. Book 1 feels awful, confused and lost. I think I will allow myself to work on the actual writing of Book 2. I will get to know the characters, find my style for this series, find my voice, and then go back and work on Book 1 when I feel I am able. I will probably even work on both at the same time.

    I had a lot more thoughts but they are being pushed back for my subconscious to consider now. Overall, with this new series and a second I am working on, I am seeing my writing style and my voice changing completely from what it was before. It has not fully emerged yet and I am still trying to use my old style and voice. And that is not working. But I do not know how to do anything different so I keep trying. That has to stop. I think some of my plans from above can help with that and I do intend to use them.

    I will have to keep reading your post KatG. Every paragraph is a gold nugget for me right now. Thanks again.
     
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2012
  5. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    I'll second what Kat said. Read her advice over and over till it makes sense and sticks.

    Chapters are more of an aid to writers to help them organize their work. Readers don't notice them much if at all - if you've sucked them in and locked them into your story. A chapter ending is then just a page turn. Or maybe a good place to put down the book so they can run to the bathroom to relieve an overfull bladder.

    I think in terms of scenes: a narration of events with enough sensory detail to make the reader feel they are experiencing the story along with the main characters(s). They have a definite beginning and ending in time and space, though the scale may be milliseconds or millennia, and millimeters or light years.

    Scenes often have a setup, development, and resolution, though they may be pretty minimal. Especially the shorter scenes. I may put several short scenes into a chapter. Or divide a very long scene over several chapters. When I do that I usually end a chapter with a bend or curve in the scene, as when a secondary character enters or leaves it, or the action changes intensity.
    _____________________________​
    I'm now on my eighth book, with three completed and online available as both ebooks and "pbooks" via the CreateSpace print-on-demand service, three others completed but in different rewrite stages, and my very first forever on the shelf. I'm finding both my quantity and quality are increasing with every book.

    This one is going very fast because I've learned how to combine scenes with scene summaries so that I have an intuitive grasp of the whole complete work without needing a detailed outline. Once the book is done I then go back and expand scene summaries if they warrant expansion. And often to trim scenes in which I put too much detail. (Too much for the reader. The detail was useful to me to make sure I got the events right, but much of it can be discarded once I have the overall scene well visualized.)
     
  6. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    I especially want to emphasize Kat's first paragraph. Scenes and scene summaries, chapters, and all the other tools of the writer (dialogue, plot, character reveals, etc.) are tools to help you get a story done.

    Use them however suits the story you want to tell, or your mind and heart dictate. Over time you'll likely experiment with different ways to use them, and become skilled at switching between ways as needed.
     
  7. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    I write in scenes, some of which become entire chapters by themselves, but I don't really know my chapter breaks until I'm revising and can see the "big picture."

    My advice is don't get bent out of shape about them (chapter breaks). Work from instinct on the first draft and examine your breaks afterward in the revision stage.
     
  8. kmtolan

    kmtolan KMTolan

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    For me, a chapter is a combination of two things - a scene (as if on a stage) and a page count.

    Page count, you say?

    Yeah. I used to do thirty-page (average) chapters but they became cumbersome to line edit by my reading group in the period of time needed. Reduced to an average of fifteen pages. I also felt that a reader might like to end on a chapter ending during a reading session - much easier with smaller chapters.

    So call this a practical application. Scenes, however, can out of necessity (and for more drama) be much shorter, so I'm not beyond coughing up a much shorter chapter if called for.

    I am not a fan of micro-chapters - those couple page (or even couple paragraph) concoctions I see on rare occasion. For me, it really jars the smooth reading.

    Kerry
     
  9. A. Lynn

    A. Lynn Was: "Virangelus"

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    For some reason, I've always thought of Chapters in a holistic sense. Once a scene or story point has reached a point where it's been "buttoned up" as my Principles of Narratives professor called it, then it was time to "cut" to a different story point.

    KatG is marvelous, isn't she? Even when she's raking you across the coals :eek:

    Red, I believe I've over and over again recommended you the "Write is a Verb" book, haven't I? If not, I'm recommending it.

    I may even Facebook you about it later. Stay tuned.
     
  10. RedMage

    RedMage There is no tomorrow

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    I did not feel raked over the coals at all. Ok, maybe I did feel KatG was raking me a little in the beginning but sometimes that's what's needed.

    Kerry, Jon, Laer, thanks for your suggestions and for sharing your experiences. All very good. And I am the same as you Kerry, micro-chapters are not my thing. I very much feel that chapters need to be at least 8 or 9 pages. Maybe 1 or 2 chapters in the whole book that are shorter than that but no more.

    Write is a Verb, Vira? I think you may have suggested it in the past but I honestly cannot remember. I will look into it right now though.

    EDIT: Vira, is this the book? I can't believe how cheap it is! If this is the book, then you should make that a part of your pitch when you suggest it ;)
     
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2012
  11. A. Lynn

    A. Lynn Was: "Virangelus"

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    Red, that's the book! It's written by a psychiatrist. It's been a HUGE help to me! I think I've quoted it at you and John H. several times.
     
  12. RedMage

    RedMage There is no tomorrow

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    Ok, I can say with certainty that yes, you have quoted it at us. Haha! Ok, I will go ahead and order it now. I was always hesitant before because I know you bought it for school and my experience with school books was to buy a book for a lot more than it was really worth, hardly have any readings assigned--and not the best selections of the book at that--and then not be able to sell it to anyone else because the prof changed their choices of books for the next term. So yeah, it's cheap at only $3.32 USD for the cheapest new book and goes up to a reasonable new price of $9.95. Much better than I expected!
     
  13. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    It's been my main job. Also comes in handy raising a child. But mainly, we writers, whether we get anywhere or not, all pretty much have the same issues: how do I do this? It's just the answers will vary. (Which reminds me, I probably could use Write is a Verb.)

    If you ever need a commandment, there is only one I know of: Give yourself permission to write garbage. This is the number one thing that authors tend to say in interviews when asked to advise new writers. We've had numerous published authors here say it. You may have a process where you write everything out in your head and then put it down on paper and don't do successive drafts. But that's still writing garbage in your head. It's the raw materials where your brain is picking through words. Maybe those words will never go anywhere. Maybe you'll throw them all out. But the brain has to try it first for anything to come out.

    I'm so glad you feel that way. Remember that before you look in the Bad Covers thread. :D
     
  14. A. Lynn

    A. Lynn Was: "Virangelus"

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    I'm heading that way now, but one thing anybody should be able to say about you (if they're being honest with themselves, anyway) is that like it or not, KatG has experience, and speaks with intelligible reasoning.

    I just hope you remember that experienced should not be confused with infallible, depending on my reply :p
     
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2012
  15. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    This is good, but I always preferred: "If you can do anything else for a living besides writing, I suggest doing that instead."
     
  16. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    Psychologists researching creativity agree with Kat's "Give yourself permission to write garbage" suggestion. For a variety of reasons.

    One is that sometimes a crappy idea can lead to a genius idea. In several ways. Amidst the pile of manure may be a tiny gem. The crappy idea may challenge us to do better. It may be brilliant when turned on its head or inside-out. It may be terribly wrong for one story, but perfectly apt for another. And so on.

    Another is that criticizing ideas too early can strangle our ability and willingness to create ANY idea at all. Perfectionists (like me!) may spend hours, days - months! - obsessively writing and re-writing one single paragraph and never get anywhere near to finishing a single essay or short story.

    So write garbage. Write mediocre stuff. Write lots. It at least gets your creative juices flowing.

    Hold off criticizing your stuff as long as you can. You, might, say, write a few paragraphs, then scan what you've done to make sure you're heading in the direction you need to go. Or write several pages of a scene, then go back and critique it.

    Or you may write many chapters, even an entire book, if you're fired with energy and inspired by the people and places and action of your story. The miracle of computers and word processors is that they allow us to be careless and creative, and then to unleash our critical side to give the story a much-needed makeover.
     
  17. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    You mean that people write to try to make a living? Why would anyone think that? :)
     
  18. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    hehe. No, I mean that if you have the skills to do anything else, don't write for a living.
     
  19. goldhawk

    goldhawk aurea plectro

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    Soooo, all writers are losers? :eek:
     
  20. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    Mind you, it's not my quote, but I repeat it sometimes. Writing for a living is an . . . interesting experience. Nice if you have the loving financial support of a spouse or wealthy patron. Not so nice if you're the one responsible for paying the mortgage every month.

    When I first got into the business, I had the fantasy that my first book contract would set me up in fine style for a few years. Oh, how I laugh about that now.