What Is a Chapter?

ChapterI’ve written a half-dozen posts reflecting on the process of writing Chocotle, a seedling novel. Previous posts are somewhere lower in the stack. I’m writing this one sooner than I expected, because Chapter 7 slammed shut after only 10 pages. It often happens that chapters end before I’m ready. I’m not sure why, and it made me consider, what is a chapter, anyway?

A chapter is a set of scenes separated by passages of description.  For me, a chapter is a movement of character and story bigger than one scene. A single scene shows one or several characters acting or reacting, in virtual real-time. The reader sees it while it’s happening.

It can take a paragraph to describe how a character leaps out of the way and tumbles to the floor, something that in real life might take a couple of seconds. If the paragraph is understood properly (and written properly), the reader has a feeling that the action took only a few seconds, so that counts as virtual real-time. A sequence of real-time actions, such as conversational ping-pong, can take minutes.

By contrast, a description can say something like, “By the end of the week, Bob was exhausted.” That compresses a whole week’s worth of actions into one sentence. A chapter is a set of real-time scenes, with narrative description as the fast-forward button between them. By combining those two, the chapter covers a larger block of time, minutes, days or weeks, perhaps a few months, or even years or centuries. All that compressed time is punctuated by scenes in real-time, to make the story slow down so the reader can feel the characters.

How do I know how much time a chapter should cover? The question is really about what the chapter goals are. However long it takes to accomplish those – that’s how big the chapter should be. Okay then, how do I decide what the chapter goal(s) is or are? I’m not sure about that. I have a larger vision of where I want the story to go in general, and I need to identify the points of action that need explanation. I call them “break points.”

If I want a character to go from rags to riches, I can’t just say, “And by the end of the week he was wealthy.” The reader would think, “Wait a minute! How did that happen?” Something like that is unusual and the reader wants details. There are too many ways it might have unfolded to just gloss over it.  So I need to identify the critical circumstances, the break points, that caused the result, and I have to show those, with scenes, so the reader can see how it happened.

If I have too many break points to illustrate, the chapter will be too long, and probably confusing, too; it’s hard to remember it all. If I gloss over important break points, the reader will feel frustrated, left out, and disconnected from the character. I have to figure out which story developments are unusual, interesting, or important enough, that they need explanation. I don’t need to explain how the character ate a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. But I would need to explain why he suddenly quit his job.

In Chapter 7, my goal was get Scott out of his job – he had to quit, and then suffer the consequences of that decision, because I need him to hit bottom so he will be forced to rebuild his life in a different way. That’s the general arc of his story – he crashes down from a high place then rebuilds a new world. Quitting his job is crucial to that development. I could have accomplished it in one sentence: “So he quits his job, and the family’s finances go to hell and he has to sell the house and his wife hates him.” But it’s an unusual, dramatic event. People don’t just up and quit every day. There are too many ways it could have happened. The reader needs to see some break points.

So how did it happen? In the beginning of Chapter 7, Scott is torn by the irrationality of what he’s about to do. His gut tells him to quit, but he knows it doesn’t make sense. That’s a scene, where he argues with himself, and the reader can see what he’s thinking. Finally, he calls his boss and they have a conversation. The reader listens to that conversation and sees how Scott quit and how the boss took it. That’s another scene.

Then he has to tell his wife what he’s done. She’s horrified and disbelieving. She screams and shouts. That’s a scene. Then there’s a section of narration that compresses the next three months, all the way to the end of the year. By the end of three months, things are bad. Scott tells his kids they have to go to public school because the private school fees are killing him. That’s a compressed scene, narrated, slow, with indirect quotations, but not shown in full real-time detail. I wanted to include the kids in the unfolding crisis, but I didn’t think it was important for them to be fully dramatized. Scott’s my main character, not them.

By this time, when things are really bad, Scott’s wife, who has been devastated since the credit cards stopped working, is humiliated by the idea of having to sell the house (What will Mom and Dad think?). She and Scott talk. That’s the closing scene.

At that point, I thought, “Mission Accomplished.” He quit his job, he told his boss, his kids and his wife. His financial ship is sinking fast, which is a strong motivation for him to make further changes in his life. The End.

But the chapter was only 10 pages long, 2500 words. First I thought I could add another goal, because he hasn’t really hit bottom yet. His wife has to leave him and take the kids. I could add that. But that would open a can of worms that would wriggle on for many pages, probably end up being too long, and it would also dilute the effectiveness of the single message I had for this chapter: Guy quits his job; his life falls apart.

Then I thought maybe I had over-compressed Chapter 7 and that’s why it was short. I could have unpacked that three-month compression into a few slower, more detailed scenes. There was a reason I compressed. The chapter is transitional, showing Scott falling, having jumped off a cliff. It’s a simple idea – you jump and you fall. If I detailed it out in more scenes, I’m afraid the chapter would become overwritten and boring. I don’t know. How can I know?

What kind of scenes could I add? I could dramatize phone calls from creditors, showing Scott’s struggle to stay afloat. I could show awkward meetings with friends at the supermarket where he and his family are embarrassed to reveal they are no longer affluent. I could show Scott and his wife trying to hide their financial distress from parents. I could show Scott in tense interviews with job recruiters. Right now all that feels like it would be overkill. It’s not hard to understand what it means to be on the financial ropes because we’ve all been there. It’s like eating oatmeal – it needs little explanation.

Or am I wrong about that? Maybe I rushed it. This is a first draft, and I won’t pause to second-guess myself at this point. So I’ll revisit Chapter 7 later and maybe I’ll decide to expand it.

Scott has fallen. In the next chapter, for sure, he will splat on the sidewalk.

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