Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Let's Talk About The Staff / Chapters: Give Me a Break

Chapters are funny things when you are a writer. During the editing process of writing The Staff, the connections and relationships between chapters was an evolving thought. I started with writing numbers. However, during editing the numbers were so jumbled and disconnected I didn't even see them there. I progressed to replacing numbers with lines or breaks. It started with a centered line, then a series of asterisk and eventually a mix of different versions. Finally, during the last few revisions, I took out all chapter breaks, lines, and anything that resembled a specific stop. Then I replaced it with a double space and left it. 

And then I read the novel and I really liked the fluid motion that was created. If people wanted to stop, they could stop at any one of those breaks and stop. A few people have asked me about chapter breaks and the fact that I don't have chapters. My response has been, why would I want you to stop reading? 

Conceptually, chapters and their history is an often overlooked element of writing. There are a variety of approaches for chapters. In spy novels, location changes are highlighted in chapter headings. Sometimes, a writer will add a quote to the beginning of a chapter to add some kind of esoteric quality to what is coming. Sometimes, that is intriguing to me and other times it is a distraction. 

Nicholas Dames wrote an article The Chapter: A History for the New Yorker in 2014. And he outlines that "The first authors who wrote in chapters were not storytellers. They were compilers of knowledge... who used chapters as a way of organizing large miscellanies." He goes on to explain that complex religious or philosophical texts required an almost index quality that was created for the purpose finding the location of important passages and areas to refer. 

Later, as novels developed, chapters became manageable nightly moments that were framed for the reader. "Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shady" insisted that "chapters relieve the mind," encouraging our immersion by letting us know what we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going - an attention paid out rhythmically - would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read." 

It makes sense when Dickens and others were writing their stories in serials that chapters were like short story titles and that when collected together, it makes sense that we are reminded about what is happening as the story unfolds.

In modern novels, chapters have become flexible. In the age of Netflix binge watching, where the credits are not even consumed when a new episode starts, are modern readers looking for a break or time to digest the story -- or are they reaching for the next moment of conflict, action, and storytelling. Just keeping reading.



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