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Writing Fiction: Chapters and Breaks

Chapters and Breaks in Fiction…

I don't know quite how to categorize this post, because it's partly me as a reader with opinions, and partly me as an author with opinions, too.

Chapter Breaks, Time Jumps, POV Changes, and other Sticky Wickets

the typed words Chapter OneFew things throw me out of the story faster than realizing the last paragraph I've been reading was supposed to be from another character's point of view, and no wonder I was confused when the alpha male character had suddenly taken to wearing a bra. Not there's anything wrong with it if it the guy is a cross-dresser.  ;-}  

Some of the problem is formatting, and ebook file limitations get in the way. Some, however, is carelessness by the author, editor, book designer, and/or publisher. I've come to think of chapter breaks in novels (paper or digital) as a kindness to readers. In these days of grouping 8 or 10 or 20 novels into a bundle, chapters are a huge help. Since ebook display software hasn't yet, in my opinion, found the right balance between making the read smooth and providing information on where you are in the story, the way you can when you're holding a physical book, chapters offer the reader at least a general idea. Sure, you can use a tool like Calibre to break the bundle up into more manageable sizes, but that's a pain in the ass when all you want to do is click “Buy!” and start reading.

I also like visual cues that tell me something has changed, usually a time break, but sometimes locations. I definitely like visual cues when changing point of view. Some authors do it with chapters, some with spacing, some with special glyphs. If none of these are possible, please, please let me know who's head I'm in sooner rather than later. Don't make me skip down a couple of paragraphs to find out, because it takes me out of the story and into editor mode, which is the last place I want to be just when the story is getting good.

I'm also confused if the POV changes, a.k.a., head-hopping, go so fast it makes your head spin (heh). I recently read a love scene where the POV changed from the man, to the woman, and back again about every two short paragraphs, and I got so lost I had to go back a page and skim through to figure out what was happening. On the other hand, I'm kind of annoyed when authors make me wade back through a lot of events I already know about, just so I can get another person's thoughts. When handled poorly, it's like watching a rerun of the TV show you just saw. If handled well, I learn new things that keep me interested, and not just that the person is aroused when the object of his/her desire breathes.

cat getting wet and looking annoyed– – – – – – – – – –
Pet-peeve note to authors/publishers of ebooks: Please hire a professional book designer when converting your novel to e-reader formats. I can't tell you the number of books I've read where the formatting is just plain bad, or I have to adjust the letter size and line spacing to make it remotely readable, or the book overrides my font preference or ignores my line-spacing preference. That's like saying Ford saying “you can buy any color of car you want, as long as it's black.” My standalone, black-and-white e-reader gives me few enough choices as it is — don't take them away from me.
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How long should a chapter be? I don't know what they teach in university writing programs, but I think it's up to the author, and the particular book they're writing. Rachel Aaron, in her book 2K to 10K (if you're an author who likes plotting, you owe it to yourself to read her book), mentions that for her, a chapter ends up being about 3,500 words. In my first book, Overload Flux, most of the chapters ended up anywhere from 2,500 to 4,200 words (except for a few special chapters, which were more like 1,000). The SF comedy book I co-wrote (Hooray for Holopticon) generally has much shorter chapters, maybe an average of 2,000 words per chapter. I'd provide others as examples, but I'm not inclined to pull other people's books apart to do a chapter word count comparison. 

Writing one big manuscript in Word or similar programs doesn't make it easy to figure out where your chapters should be. Scrivener (bless its little heart) assumes you're writing in in chunks, be they scenes, chapters, or other divisions, and gives you nice easy page counts for each as you go. It took me some getting used to, but now I'm thoroughly enjoying writing in Scrivener. (The jury is still out on whether it will be as helpful once I have to compile a Word document for sending off to beta readers, my editor, and publishers.)

So, if you're an author and/or a reader—and I imagine you are or you'd be outside playing instead of reading this blog—what do you think?