What Are Chapters For?

In the long time that I have been away from this blog, I have not been entirely unproductive. Among other things, I’ve been revising The Jane Austen Project and am now through Chapter 6. In honor of that, I have decided to post Chapter 2 here.

I’ve also been thinking about a lot of things, like Downton Abbey, which deserves a post of its own, only I don’t know where to start, and also, not completely unrelated, about chapters. For one thing that intrigues me about Downton Abbey is the issues it raises about the different ways there are of telling a story, and chapters have something to do with that. How do we decide where they begin and end, and what do they have to do with the architecture of a novel?

In the days of two or three-volume novels, which was when Jane Austen was initially published, Book I and II or sometimes III, which seem to us in the 21st century merely a brief moment of white space as we gallop on to the next exciting plot development, were literally that — books. In one of those references that are easy to read right past, Miss Bingley, near the start of Pride and Prejudice (when Elizabeth is stuck at Netherfield with an ill Jane), is described as reading with not much interest a book that she had picked up only because it was the other volume of the one Mr. Darcy was reading. Supposedly, books were published this way so more than one member of the household could be reading the same book at the same time. It also certainly must have had the effect of making you notice much more the pause where Book I (or II) ended and Book II (or III) began. Even if someone else in the household wasn’t reading it, you had to put down Book I and pick up Book II, or maybe go in search of it. There was at least a brief interlude when you had to stop and think about what had just happened, or what would happen next. It wasn’t just a big book you were carrying around for weeks at at a time and falling into whenever you could (I’m looking at you, Clarissa).

Later in the 19th century, of course, with the rise of novels in installments, published in magazines, this notion of where you left off telling a story for maximum dramatic impact and suspense became much more important. It’s exciting to think about a world where you had to wonder about what would happen next in Middlemarch, and wait to find out, instead of just turning the page… but, oh, I just lived through that world. It involved Harry Potter.

Downton Abbey, by virtue of being a miniseries, enforces this kind of pause, too, even if people today can just use their iPads or DVD players to watch the whole thing at once. What’s interesting is what happens in between, when people speculate about what will happen next and reflect on what has just happened. We need more of that in the world.

How to decide where and why to start and end a chapter? I haven’t made a serious study of this, but the more sophisticated sort of modern novel often seems to neglect the chapter entirely, instead dividing the book into segments according to some sort of logic (a break in time, a change in point of view), and just seguing from one scene to another within those segments. The long chapter descriptions that could stand in as capsule summaries, so beloved by 18th-century novelists like Fielding and Goldsmith, are now used only ironically. Standard chapters, of roughly equal lengths, each ending at a suspenseful moment, now seem mostly the realm of suspense tales and murder mysteries.

So I have chapters, but why do I have them? Do I need them? Do they accomplish anything? For me in the writing, they were way stations, a moment to pause and breathe. In the early days, when I decided I had finished a chapter was when I would actually put down my notebook and type in that section of the manuscript. This sense of accomplishment, of finishing one thing and moving on to the next, was vital in the nonetheless glacial progress of writing The Jane Austen Project. But are they just scaffolding, that I can discard now that I have a structure? An interesting question and one I don’t know how to answer. The truth is I hardly notice chapters when I read novels. If it’s a good novel, I plow on regardless. If it’s a bad one — I stop, chapters be damned.

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One thought on “What Are Chapters For?

  1. I like chapters. It gives me a stopping point when I find it necessary to set aside the book for a time. Books without breaks irritate the heck out of me.

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