Do I really NEED chapters?

Miss Snark,

Hugs and kisses, love your advice, oh and a wink is thrown to KY from Bailey the wonder dog from upstate. While I do fear your rath, I must ask this question that's been bothering me of late since I'm about finished (yeah right)editing and about to begin querying. So many agents ask for the first few chapters. Is it necesary to have a novel broken down into chapters before sending it off?

I don't write with specific chapters and chapter breaks in mind, is this something I should concentrate on doing? I know many agents also say to send x number of chapters or the first x number of pages, I was just curious if most people submit with chapters or if it's not truly needed. I just don't want to appear too green when querying agents by making rookie mistakes.

Have you ever seen Touch of Evil by Orson Wells or The Player by Robert Altman? Both movies open with very long tracking shots, more than six minutes long. The effect is to build suspense until you are on the edge of your seat. That's what writing without chapters is. One long buildup.

Unless you have an explosion, or a car wreck at the end of those six minutes, it starts to feel like Bolero with a skip in the record--endless buildup to nothing. Your reader can't stay with you endlessly-- it's exhausting to read something that has no page punctuation. And unless you have one long tracking shot narrative there ARE breaks in your story.

Writing without chapter breaks screams amateur and undisciplined to me, UNLESS you mention it in your cover letter along with the reason why you've decided to choose this format.

Avoid it if you can.


Kat said...

The chapter serves two essential functions. One, it's a dramatic pause, a Full Stop which draws attention. Two, it lets the writer quietly vanish some amount of time, move to a new setting, or change POVs without confusing the reader.

Scene breaks -- a simple extra line between paragraphs, rather than a full page break -- can accomplish much the same thing. Most writers use both, with scene breaks used for minor shifts of time/scene/character and chapters for major ones. Some use only one. But I can't remember any book using neither.

If you're wondering if you can get away with having only scene breaks, I'd say sure. Terry Pratchett does. Send the agent the first 50 pages or so if they ask for 3 chapters and the first 15 or so if they ask for one, wherever your most convenient scene break falls (since my "chapters" run 50 pages apiece, this is what I've been doing). But if you're trying to write with neither, then I must agree with Miss Snark. Everyone needs some breathing room. ;)

domynoe said...

You may WRITE without chapters, but you can create them once the writing, revising, and editing is done. I don't write with chapters in mind either. But once i start workshopping a book, I start figuring out where I need to make those chapter breaks. By the time I'm done, books is chaptered even though it didn't start that way. :)

Anonymous said...

Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic has no chapters. It is, however, broken down into four parts. Pacing is the most important thing to consider if you go this route. But it can be done, and done well.


Anonymous said...

I have this tendency too, and rather than writing and then imposing chapters on my book, I have been forcing myself to keep chapters in mind. It has been a challenging exercise and I feel it has improved my writing considerably. When I sat down to start my current WIP that was one of the main techinical issues I was determined to focus on. Now that I'm eight chapters in it is getting easier to see the natural rise and fall of the story and easier to know when I need to start a new chapter.

Since you know this is an area you struggle with, you can make a deliberate decision to change. I bet you'll grow as a writer by stretching yourself in this whole new way. I know I have.

Eva said...

What about a diary format? Is this difficult to sell? What about most of the twentieth century in one woman's diary chronicling the times while exposing family secrets to the daughter reading?

Anonymous said...

I could no more write without chapters than without paragraphs.

Sentences --> paragraphs --> sections --> chapters ... each one is a slightly higher structural unit, and each one has its own point and arc.

To me, it is the most natural thing in the world to have narratives break into large units like chapters. Plus, I usually use chapter titles, which can be great fun.

Lady M said...

I hate to say this...

But unless it was a literary, high-style, piece of art... without chapters, I'd have a hard time reading it.

I'm an insomniac reader - and that one thing *chapters* let's me tell myself:

Just to the end of this chapter, and then I'll fall asleep.

Or... I'll get up and do the dishes...

Or... I'll make dinner.

I would never, sleep, eat or have a clean house if there were no chapters.

(grumble grumble mumble... and they think I'm kidding. LOL!)

However, if it is a seriously high brow literary piece of art - and I know this going in... I can choose to section it in my mind, and can actually crawl off the couch to attend to life.

Oh please put the chapters in to save people like me from ourselves... assuming there are people like me... that is.

Bill Peschel said...

Kat beat me to Terry Pratchett. He's worth studying, not only to see what a book is like without chapter breaks (although he did use them in "Going Postal), but because I find his books very re-readable, and that's a rare quality.

Titles? said...

What about chapter titles? Why is it that most books, (commercial fiction), don't have them? My manuscript does.

Anonymous said...

Chapters? I don't need no stinkin' chapters.

Actually that's completely false. If I analyze the way I write, I tend to compartmentalize discrete actions, events, navel pondering, etc. into scenes and then chapters.

This allows me to selectively embellish what needs fleshing out, do liposuction on the fat, rearrange to fit the logic of the story, and delete stuff that doesn't belong.

I doubt I could have done that if I had a steady stream of writing, no scene breaks and chapter breaks. The flexibility wouldn't have been there. It would have been, to use the cliché, set in stone.


Maya said...

Pick up the books you regard as the most engrossing. You'll often find that the chapter has its own story arc and that the chapter break occurs right BEFORE a moment of denouement. The author is "forcing" you to turn that page to find out what happened next. If the chapter ends when the protagonist goes to sleep, oftentimes the reader will, too.

archer said...

My favorite Microsoft Word field code is { SEQ CHAPTER\*Cardtext\*Upper\*MERGEFORMAT }. I was nearly committed before someone showed it to me.

meg said...

Microsoft Word field code is { SEQ CHAPTER\*Cardtext\*Upper\*MERGEFORMAT }.

Okay, what is that, archer?

archer said...

Microsoft Word field code is { SEQ CHAPTER\*Cardtext\*Upper\*MERGEFORMAT }.

Okay, what is that, archer?

Say you have fifty chapters. You cut Chapter Seventeen and its heading. Now all the chapters after sixteen are misnumbered. Do you laboriously renumber your chapter headings? No. You just hit [ctrl]a, then F9, and every chapter in your entire MS renumbers itself. This is because you numbered your chapters using field codes. Here's how to do it.

Here's the code again (note there is no initial bracket);


1. Select and copy the above code.

2. In MSW document, place your cursor above the first chapter.

3. Go to "insert" and select "field."

3. An interactive box appears. Click on the "FIELD CODES" box in lower left corner.

4. Another interactive box appears. Paste the code into the box at the top that says "Advanced Field Properties." (Be sure to delete anything that's there before you insert the code.)

5. Hit "OK."

6. The word "ONE" appears in your document where you put the cursor. (You can center this over the chapter or do whatever you want with it)

7. Now copy the word "ONE" and paste it a few times below:




8. Hit [ctrl]a.

9. Hit F9. The numbers now sequence automatically. (ONE TWO THREE )etc. If you cut out one number (or two or three) and then select them all and hit F9 again, they repair the sequence.

10. Borrow an hour or two against the days of re-numbering chapters you just saved yourself, and go out and have a drink.

11. You must promise only to use this power for Good.

12. Important note: Never attempt to use the "Edit field..." function offered by the right mouse click. For some reason, this causes Windows to have a petit-mal seizure.

Gabriele C. said...

Copied that. Thanks Archer.

I'm so tired of cutting, adding, shoving around and renumbering chapters.

Sarah said...

So you have all your chapters in one MSW document? Does it take forever to load? I have mine separate and then pulled together in a master document. But I'm finding this isn't good for doing total word counts, rearranging chapters, etc. I MUST USE THIS CODE!

I swear, these days I spend more time on "housekeeping" than I do on finishing the book.

Grady said...


Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!


archer said...

3. Go to "insert" and select "field."

3. An interactive box appears. Click on the "FIELD CODES" box in lower left corner.

You can see why I needed the code.

Anonymous said...

Archer, that's brilliant. Thank you. This will save me a ton of time in the future, especially as I don't title my chapters, but just number them One, Two, etc.

The cool thing is, you can select all and have it only renumber the chapters. The only gotcha I can see if the document has other fields, I'm not sure what effect the F9 key will have.