Wright’s Writing Corner: On Chapters


Kestrel Lessingham, in all his glory

as drawn by John C. Wright


For three weeks now, I’ve been on the last two chapters of my novel. Not because I haven’t written much in the last three weeks, quite the contrary—I’ve been writing with every free moment, putting other things, like feeding the children, on hold. (Okay, I have been feeding the children. They make a lot of noise if I don’t. But I haven’t been doing other things that really need doing. You would not want to visit my house at the moment.)

No, I’ve been two chapters from the end because I keep deciding to add another chapter break, making the distance between where I am and the end still two chapters, even though I just finished a chapter. (Actually, as of this afternoon, I believe I am only one chapter away…but it could still surprise me and take two chapters to get to the end. Or, I could decide that the last scene, which I have pretty well mapped out in my mind, is long enough, once I write it, to merit it’s own chapter.)

So, the question becomes: What makes a chapter?

This is a difficult question. Part of it is length. In the earlier days of the Prospero series, My chapters were generally about 20 pages long. Later, I changed it to a shorter 15 pages, with some chapters falling between 12 and 17 pages. Whenever I reached about 15 pages, I looked for a dramatic place to end the chapter.

This current book (currently titled, thanks to John, The Creation Campaign) has been rather different. I’ve let story flow, rather than page count, dictate the chapter length, with the result that some chapters are 22 pages long and others are 8. Perhaps, this is not as good as the other way, but I’ve tried to break the chapters where it feels like they should be broken rather than interfering with the story flow artificially.

I should pause to explain: I write in chapters. When I started on a computer, files could only be so long, so as to fit on the floppy properly, so I got in the habit of making each chapter a separate file. No writer I know who started with word processors does this. But, to me, it is an organizational tool. It also keeps me from messing up too much of my novel if I make a mistake saving or something.

When I say I write in chapters, though, I don’t really mean the physical make up of the files. I mean the ideas. The chapter format helps me hold the ideas in my head. For instance, when I was away at Boy Scout Camp with Orville, I was able to review my novel and think it over in detail by sequentially thinking of each chapter in order, and thus recalling with ease what happened in each one. Since some contained scenes I had forgotten until I recalled what was in that chapter, I doubt I could have done the same thing, had the story not been broken up into sections.

So, the question becomes, again: what makes a chapter?

Difficult question. It isn’t necessarily one idea because chapters can have radically different scenes in them. But, ideally, there will be some kind of thematic unity to the events, if only that those particular events happen to take place within a short time of each other. If the chapter can contain one scene or one idea, that is even better.

The process of where to end the chapters is one I wrestle with, going back and forth in my mind. Normally, this has been the process of taking a longer chapter or perhaps two and restructuring them into three small chapters. Though yesterday, I spent a good deal of time trying to decide if I should run Chapters 32 and 33 into one chapter. Ideally, they would fit together rather well. They are really one idea, and neither is particularly lengthy. But in the long run, they were too long when I put them together, so I left them separate.

I find the chapter is a really good tool to get to know my novel and its dramatic needs. I try to have every chapter end either on a cliff hanger (seldom) or on a dramatic moment or image. Interestingly enough, I notice that the act of ending the chapter makes the last moment more dramatic. The same scene that stands out as startling at the end of the chapter can seem bland if buried inside the middle of a chapter. So, part of the art of chapter ending is trying to pace things so that one’s more dramatic moments get their own chapter end.

That’s probably why this book has more uneven chapters than the others. I’ve been trying to do the natural drama points more justice.

One thing, however, that definitely makes a chapter for me is the title. I find that the act of titling a chapter tells me a great deal about it. Can I find an idea that sums up the chapter? If so, I know I made the chapter break at a good place. Can I find a word or phrase that tells the reader something more about the chapter than they might understand if they read it, or that emphasizes an important secondary idea that might otherwise be missed? Those are my favorite chapter titles. Or, if all else fails, can I think of something funny?

I know not everyone titles their chapters. Some people just give numbers. But my ideal, somewhere in the back of my mind, is C.S. Lewis. I loved his chapter titles as a child.  They would be something like “In Which Something Really Cool Occurs.” I don’t usually go the In Which route myself, but I do try to come up with something that is evocative and memorable. I should be able to remember the chapter title down at Boy Scout Camp. If I can’t…I probably could pick a better one.

Alas, some of the chapter names for my current book are rather dumb. (“Dr. Danger, Stormhawk, and the Frog” comes to mind, as does “The Return of the Ring and Other Gear.”) That one really could be improved. Others, however, are rather cool.  (Like: “The Dreamers Whose Dreams Are True,” “Guns for Oyster Spit” and “Do You Know The Way To The Black Market?”)

Don’t know if any other writers find this, but I love the moment when the book is done and I can read my table of contents and look over the chapter titles, and thus quickly picture the whole book in my head.

Okay…back to my novel. One chapter to go until the book is finished…I think.