I #AmWriting about the Continuing Relevance of Chapters in Ebooks

Yesterday I sent the rough draft of my Christmas novella off to my first readers. I realized only after I sent it that I hadn’t used chapters. While the piece is long enough that chapters wouldn’t be ridiculous, they might not, strictly speaking, be necessary. This logic was how I quieted the voice telling me to add chapter divisions and re-send the draft.

Then I wondered…are chapters necessary anymore, even with novels?

First, with ebooks, is there any reason other than mimicry of the printed form to divide stories into chapters instead of just using the extra spaces and asterisks to divide scenes? Do people reading electronically stop at chapter breaks, or do they just stop when they get tired of reading or reach what feels to them like a good breaking point?

Personally, when I read on my iPhone, I don’t bother to stop at chapters. I don’t have my finger planted ahead 5 or 20 pages to show me the chapter break where I can get up to pee or use to delay being called from the story (“I have three pages till the end of the chapter!”) like I do with printed books. I find flipping forward that unknown number of screens and then having to go back and find my place in the text again too much trouble to bother with. So I just lay the story down when I want or need to stop reading. Chapters are literally irrelevant to my experience of reading an ebook.

Second, are chapters still being used in a way that makes sense to me as a reader, or is the modern novel-writing standard antithetical to my reading (and therefore my novel-writing) aesthetic?

To me, the point of a chapter is to bring a reader to the end of a scene or a section where they can comfortably close the story to come back to later. But in many (almost all?) of the books I have read lately, it seems like chapters end right in the middle of something good. All the writing articles about chapters I found before writing this post (all three of them!) suggested ending chapters with cliffhangers to enhance narrative tension and keep readers turning pages.

I. Hate. This. Trend. Maybe I’m just twitchy about cliffhanger chapter endings because of that nightmare I had as a kid after my mom read to the end of the chapter where the goblins grab the dwarves from the cave and stopped; I don’t know. But as a reader, I want a chapter ending to indicate the closing of a section. You know, the idea that built the clichés “close the chapter on that part of life” and “start a new chapter in life.”

I understand the argument for cliffhanger chapter endings—to keep the reader reading. To me, however, stooping to such a technique smacks of insecurity as a writer. It implies that you don’t trust your story and your characters to be compelling enough to bring a reader back on their own. It assumes your reader is too distractible to keep reading without a nudge to their imagination. As a reader, I find it disrespectful. If I need a break, and none of the chapter endings are actually dips in the story, then I can’t use chapters as points to set the story down. I use scene breaks—which renders chapters pointless as a means of breaking a long story into less intimidating sections.

I can see good reasons for dividing some works into chapters. Novels which are heavily episodic, novels which are told from multiple points of view, novels which have a lot of strong breaks between scenes instead of soft transitions—chapter breaks (even, I grudgingly admit, cliffhangers) still make sense for these types of books. But a typical story? One with several scenes per chapter, no single event the chapter is built around, and no discernible internal denouement to break up the story? I am not sure there is still a point to using chapters, other than tradition.

Most printed novels will continue to default to the chapter breaks because they will lack a compelling reason not to. Any ebooks that also have a print version will continue to use chapters in order to have the same text as the print edition. But with digital only publications, I think we might see more books presented without chapters. Chapter divisions are not as necessary to the digital form as they are to the print—therefore they will likely come to be used when necessary to the story and left out otherwise.

The only argument for chapters specific to digital publishing is naviigation. Ebooks rely on the table of contents to move readers to the point they want to go in the file.

However. With digital text you can create a custom table of contents that links to whatever parts of the text you want it to. You might list the major scenes of the book and link to the beginning of those scenes. Such a list would enable a reader to go back and find a certain point in the story again, without inserting pointless divisions into the text.

For example, my chapterless novella would have (perhaps I mean will have, because I’ve quite talked myself into this idea) a TOC that looks something like this:

  • The Beginning
  • Sebastian’s Arrival
  • The Proposition
  • The Yule Log
  • Christmas Day
  • The Hunt
  • The Estate Tour
  • The Ball
  • Confronting the Viscount
  • The End
  • Epilogue

It doesn’t give away anything about the story that the “back cover” wouldn’t, but a reader looking for their place or wanting to re-read a section could easily find it.

Alternatively, I could clarify the timeline of a story, such as using date divisions that start on December 22 and run through December 30 (with an epilogue on January 5). Or I could be slightly less literal with the dates and label them “The First Day of Christmas,” “The Second Day of Christmas,” etc., or “Christmas Eve,” “Christmas Day,” “Boxing Day,” “Childermass,” etc.

The possibilities are myriad. I think digital-only books could end up becoming more unique entities than we have thus far allowed them to be. Forget all the bells and whistles of “enhanced” ebooks—let’s rethink the form of the book at a more basic level.

In other words…I think I just successfully argued myself into consigning chapters to the category of quaintly irrelevant artifacts. How novel.

Or go read it on the amwriting site.

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