Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Novel work: interior construction

So I originally sat down to night to spill out the last 10 or 15 pages of my latest novel, but it occurred to me that I hadn’t made a post today and I’m not really in the mood to start 2-3 hours of writing after the day I’ve had. So instead I’m going to discuss the topic of chapters.

Now, they are confliction schools of thought on this subject, and much like length, there is no right or wrong answer. There is no rule anywhere that states that a novel must be broken down into chapters. Further, there is no specific rule as to how long those chapters must be.

Now that we’ve established that there are no rules, let’s go over a few. First, keep in mind that these are not “rules” that must be strictly obeyed, this is more of a craft thing. Your novel doesn’t “have” to do anything, but there are certain features that will make it more enjoyable for the reader.

There are a wide variety of breaks you can use to split up your work. A single, straight, unbroken line of paragraphs is not particularly conducive to storytelling, and tends to induce a sort of hypnosis in the reader. Line breaks, scene breaks, and finally chapter breaks help to break the novel structure down into more manageable chunks.

This is one novice mistake I see in young writers again and again: the overwhelming desire to produce chapters. There is no minimum length, but of your 110-page novel has 43 chapters, your reader is going to get really annoyed, really fast. There’s a reason why you don’t typically see that sort of thing in books on store shelves: people don’t like it.

I’ve seen it again and again, though, in my young writer’s work. They’ll read aloud for five minutes, and cover 3 chapters. They are using chapter breaks when a simple scene-break would suffice. One theory is that they are planning to go back and add more detail later, thus making the chapters longer, but its hard to expand a 3-page chapter that much.

It’s probably getting repetitive, but there is no minimum or maximum length. Its good form to try and keep your chapters all more or less the same length, though a 10-20% variation will not draw complaints. What does get annoying is when say a single chapter makes up half the book, and there are still 10 other, very short chapters.

If you think of the chapters like boxcars on a train, it helps to have them all roughly the same size. Another way of looking at it is like mile-markers on a road, if they are being used by the reader to track his or here progress, it helps if they are all roughly the same distance apart.

In my novels, I like to stick to a format of about 10,000 words a chapter, which in the Antelope Books added up to a neat 8-9 chapters per volume. At 90,000, 83,000, and 80,000, and with 9, 9, and 8 chapters respectively, the 3 volumes of the series have a really even and flowing feel

You may have also noticed that not all novels are even divided into chapters. Since there’s no rule, its basically up to the writer and the publisher to decide how to break it up. Since my current work is probably going to top out at about 65,000 words, I am currently not planning to break it down into chapters(as that would result in only about 6 chapters according to my formula). When I find a publisher for it, they may well decide they want a chapter book.

There are other options as well. My continual work-in-progress currently entitled “Epic” presently totals at a near 44,000 words, officially making it a “light” novel according to the in-no-way-official standards for novel lengths. Because it is simply too short to be broken down into decent-sized chapters, it is divided into a series of “movements”.

In following with the three-act structure Shakespeare taught us, Epic is broken into three movements . These individual movements even have titles, sort of like chapters. But for some reason, and this is silly but true, because they are “movements” instead of chapters, it doesn’t seem silly that there are only 3 of them.

You can certainly use the movement structure for shorter works, and you are by no means bound to just 3. If you want to call them “acts”, you should probably stick to 3, because that is the accepted number for things called “acts”, and the theater majors will riot at you if you don’t.

When it comes to dividing up your novels, the possibilities are endless. I have seen very long, very complex novels in which multiple methods are used, “acts” or “movements” that encompass chapters, which include scene breaks as well as line breaks. It makes it a whole lot easier to figure out where you are in the book, and I promise if I ever write a single, 250,000-word-long novel, I will break it up in a similar fashion.

Now, with all my talk about no short chapters, similar lengths, etc, I know what all two of you who’ve read my books are probably thinking: “But Rick! The Course Books aren’t like that!”

Well, duh The Course Books are a collection of short stories, not novels. Each short story is designed to stand on it’s own, with it’s own three acts. While these stories are connected and can be thought of as chapters, the books are not intended to function like novels.

Well, that’s it for today. And for those keeping score, its 899.

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