Chapters are a literary convention but it doesn’t mean we have to use them. The first writer who springs to mind is Terry Pratchett who rarely used chapters in his adult fiction. The obvious advantage of this is that you don’t have to think about where chapter breaks happen which might sound like a silly thing but if we’re not thinking about breaking chapters, we’re not thinking about the length of chapters, so it’s easier to avoid the trap of chapters that are too short or long for how we want to write a story.

One of the things that Pratchett can do by not having chapters is have quick-fire scenes or longer scenes which have the same pacing effect that chapters can have. He shows these transitions with a gap between scenes that indicates to the reader that we’ve moved time or place which avoids the confusion that a lack of breaks might cause.

Another thing that Pratchett can do that might be harder in a book with chapters is that he can give impression of two scenes happening simultaneously by moving rapidly between them, sometimes only having a line from each. This isn’t impossible in chapters but might raise the question of why there are chapters when we move so quickly between the scenes rather than breaking the chapter and having two separate scenes in two separate chapters. The problem of separating the scenes out into two chapters though would be that they then don’t appear to be happening at the same time even if we say they are. Having one scene after the other gives the impression of them being consecutive which may lack the momentum of Pratchett’s alternating scenes. This isn’t to say that one method is more valid than the other but it may be worth experimenting with.

One problem this might have is negating the ‘one more chapter’ effect, which doesn’t mean it will stop people reading our books. However, the reader can still read until the next scene break which may have a similar effect, as that most books are assumed to have chapters it’s hard to confirm. Given Pratchett’s international success his lack of chapters obviously didn’t put people off reading his books.

We can talk about chapters as pacing tools but the pace can be set in different ways that make up for a lack of chapters. At their most basic chapters are about clarifying for the reader, some stories need chapters to break the story into sections to help keep the story clear and others don’t. There are yet others that work far better without chapters than they would with chapters. We don’t need to assume that because the convention is to have chapters all stories must have them, they don’t. It’s about finding the most effective way to tell our story and literary conventions are made to be broken.

For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on narrative structure see Finding Your Voice.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. This is the last part.


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