Sometimes the simplest questions are the ones that can be the biggest head scratchers, as well. Anyone who has ever had their 4 year old ask them a simple question about the world that made you stop and go “Huh?” know that feeling. There are certain practices that are more hard and fast rules when it comes to writing and there are others that are general practices with no real solid rhyme or reason.
Modern chapters are a tool used to divide informational topics in non-fiction while giving additional readability and structure in fiction, sometimes being used to switch between plots, characters, or locations within the work.
Chapters are one of those things that are very common in modern books and writing, but don’t have a hard set of rules that must apply. There aren’t even necessarily set guidelines that everyone adheres to, however there are some common uses of chapters that cause them to be so popular among modern writers who use them in all their forms.
Why Use Chapters In Fiction?
There are several reasons why writers still use chapters in fiction, such as:
- Switching from one character in a story to another
- Switching from one point of view to another
- Switching locations
- Moving time to move from one important event to another in-story
- Better readability
- Gives structure
- Gives good stopping points for readers to read a little bit at a time
While it’s easy to associate chapters with fictional writing, this is mainly a two fold purpose in modern works:
- Making the book far easier for reading purposes (aesthetics and utility for the reader)
- Giving the author an easy tool for breaking up the story or making easy transitions
At this point chapters are standard and there’s no expectation for books not to have them. It doesn’t make sense and from a publisher’s perspective, someone skimming through a book and not seeing a single chapter break would likely be more inclined to not buy the book and to put it back for something else. Because of that, you would have to be a huge name to get a publisher to take the chance on a book with no chapters.
In fact, the only example I can think of was over 40 years ago and that is Stephen King’s Cujo, a novel which King admits he barely remembers writing as he was struggling with severe addiction and so even that wasn’t planned, it was just stream of consciousness (Source).
Why Use Chapters In Non-Fiction?
Aside from the obvious point of readability, chapters have always made sense in non-fiction because when cataloguing information, it needs to be organized to most efficiently pass it on. Chapters can do that effectively and further make sure that topics and sub-topics are organized together in a way that makes sense.
There are several reasons why writers still use chapters in non-fiction, such as:
- Changes in topic
- To end a section on a powerful note or bit of reflection
- Organization of information
- Increase readability
- Easier reference for finding information
Chapters are just a very useful way to organize information, and after being used in this way not just for centuries but for millenniums, it’s pretty safe to say that if there was a better way to organize writing at this point, we would have found it and be using it.
How Do Writers Learn To Use Chapters?
Honestly, even among writers who go to school for MFA programs or study writing, they don’t have classes or steady rules for chapters. Enough time practicing writing or reading more and more books help to give a sense of how they’re used in general.
There are no hard and fast rules for creating chapters but there are certain practices that are common enough that writers learn to abide by those same practices. This would include things like:
- Not creating a break in the middle of a scene
- Not introducing a character at the end of a chapter (if not a reveal) before switching to their POV in the next
- Using chapters to switch locations
- Putting an action or reveal at the end of a chapter (to start a new one)
- As a way to move from one wrapped up scene to a completely different one
Some of these will change or shift based on the style of a writer. Some writers like very short, very choppy chapters while others have much longer chapters that are almost like contained plot points before moving on to the next one.
Chapters are just good practice for writing regardless of genre and because of the long standing tradition of using them to make it easier to write in an organized fashion and to easily read the resulting work, they’re not going to go anywhere in the foreseeable future.
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