Essays and Notable Articles

The Art of the Chapter

By posted at 6:14 am on February 18, 2015 6

You want to know how weird and deep my rabbit hole goes? I’ve developed what I’ll call an eccentricity about chapters. As in: there are certain choices that writers make when dividing up their narratives that quite simply drive me fucking crazy. Without an ounce of justification, I get a pound of pissed. And what this makes me realize is not so much that I’ve developed strange little idiosyncratic tics while I’m reading (that much is obvious) but more that my reading experience is personal and solitary and deeply entrenched in whole loads of bullshit that have nothing to do with the books, i.e., that the completely happenstantial list of books I’ve read over my life has somehow hoisted onto me certain expectations of literature and literary narrative technique that are built upon wholly dubious foundations that belong only to me and cannot be argued with any intellectual integrity. And even though I know this to be true I still in some way hold my complaint against the writer and more specifically whatever book I’m reading at the time and sometimes even go so far as to downright dislike the book (though of course I keep my reasoning to myself, mostly).

Because the thing about chapters is that they provide a lot of opportunities for the writer to communicate information about their book and can in fact orient the reader as to how to read the thing. A more crass version of the chapter’s utility can be plainly seen in, e.g., the novels of Dan Brown, in which the chapters are so short (and the pagination designed just so in order to create as many pages with only a few lines on them as possible) that a reader is goaded into thinking they’re moving through the book super-quick. This is not authorial assistance; it is a kind of manipulation that, given the meteoric popularity of Brown’s novels and others like them, most people are apparently pretty cool with.

coverWhat I’m talking about instead are the ways in which chapters are not merely components of a narrative’s foundational architecture but also part of its aesthetic, i.e., more like those imposing Ionic columns that both hold up the facade and immensely add to the overall quality of the building. To begin with an obvious example: think of how much the Fantasy genre has benefited from borrowing the chapter structure of histories. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings––as the archetypal built-world saga––divides itself up into Books and Parts and Chapters, these last of which each come with a title. Plus there’s also the Notes, Maps and Appendices––all of which add to the verisimilitude of legit history, preparing the reader for a similar treatment of a fictional place. These verisimilitudinous appropriations are so effective for Fantasy and Sci-fi genres that they’ve become a standard part of their aesthetic.

coverA person who picks up Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao will know right away the scope of the novel. After a short but foreboding prologue, we enter the first part of the book. Chapter One, then, is titled, “GhettoNerd at the End of the World: 1974­­–1987.” How much information about the rest of the story can be gleaned from just this chapter heading? Well, for one we can tell that Oscar’s story will take place over a number of years, which connotes a sense of the epic on par with nonfiction histories. Moreover, “GhettoNerd” effectively characterizes both the citizens that people the story and the nomenclature they use. And the appended prepositional phrase, “at the End of the World” suggests grandness of a different kind: that of comic books and adventure stories, the very same kind gobbled up by the hopelessly uncool protagonist. Also, these emphatically grand names (later chapters are titled, e.g., “Sentimental Education: 1988-1992” and “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral: 1955-1962”) help absorb some of the momentum-shock of suddenly jumping from one time and place to another, and raise this thickly-accented contemporary tale to the status of History (a notion furthered by the book’s actual preoccupation with educating readers about the horrors of Trujillo). Tolkien borrowed from History to make his fantasy world Real; Díaz used it to make his story Significant.

coverBut there are other ways of structuring a novel to reinforce its aims and intent. Ali Smith’s There but for the sections itself into the four words of the title, and each part not only begins with the titular word but also investigates it. The unfinished sentence, “there but for the,” becomes the connective tissue of the novel, each part working like a lengthy footnote to each word. The section, e.g., “but” features a poem on the conjunction/preposition that ends:

But but?

And and?

(So simple.)


And conjuctions?

(So simple.)

The way things connect.


Ali Smith incredibly makes her book seem like a narrative investigation of a single, incomplete sentence––the ending of which is of course known to all of us and factors into the story as well.

coverChapter titles can sometimes become almost like characters, as in Office Girl by Joe Meno (a writer I unabashedly enjoy and who seems forever attached to his early success with Hairstyles of the Damned despite continuing to publish interesting works like The Boy Detective Fails, Demons in the Spring, and The Great Perhaps). The third-person-narrative novel has these short little chapters with titles like “But Ten Years Before” and “And That Night Goes to an Art Opening” and “Because This Is What He’s Been Doing.” These casual (and causal) names add a nice rhythm to the story and are actually quite necessary tactics for the reader to understand the ways the two protagonists feel about certain things in their life.

covercoverBooks like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor use numerical ordering as techniques––Haddon’s protagonist, the autistic Christopher John Francis Boone, finds safety in math, especially prime numbers, so the chapters are headlined by those indivisible numbers; Palahniuk’s 1999 novel’s chapters are in reverse sequence––starting with Chapter 47 and ending with 1––as is the pagination, thereby “counting down” to the climax in the most literal way possible. These are simple and effective touches, connecting the disparate elements of the novels into single, cohesive units. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries uses the Zodiac to reinforce the written-in-the-stars nature of her tale. Twelve main characters mirror the twelve signs, and the book’s even got twelve chapters and those are made up of smaller sections named after the precise (as I’m sure Catton researched it thoroughly) locations of the corresponding sign, as in, e.g., “Mercury in Sagittarius.” Taken altogether, Catton’s chapters work to add to the tone of the work (which is an uber-complex mystery featuring mediums and séances and ghosts (of a sort)) but are way too complex for someone like me who both doesn’t buy into astrology and knows next to nothing about it. In other words, from my point of view Catton succeeded in creating a forest even though I don’t understand the trees.

And then there is, of course, the shit that bothers me: for example, Moliere’s Tartuffe, a play in which the introduction of any character to a scene calls for a new one. What is this about? It makes for frustrating reading, akin to having someone announcing the entrance of every featured player in a sitcom. There’s Jerry! And look––Kramer! Just annoying. I know my aversion isn’t intellectually justifiable (after all, the scene numbers would be invisible if I ever actually saw a production of Tartuffe) but everyone has to admit that we’ve come to expect certain things from chapters, right? But here is a great problem: my arbitrary history with reading has not only given me these unfair proclivities but it’s also somehow convinced me that everyone else agrees with me.

coverTake, for instance, Charles Baxter’s otherwise fine novel The Feast of Love. In the opening of the book, Charlie Baxter embarks on a late-night walk after a night of restless sleep. This chapter, entitled “Preludes,” ends when Charlie’s friend Bradley comes upon him: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” Then, the section ends. The next chapter, “One,” begins like this: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” It’s the same setting, the same scene––hell, the same fucking moment––yet Baxter inserts a division here. Why? Well, I could see someone saying that Bradley’s entrance marks a shift in the story, since it is Bradley’s stories that comprise the novel. But then Baxter does this again. Chapter One ends with Bradley launching into his tales: “Okay,” he says. “Chapter One. Every relationship has at least one really good day…” and then Chapter Two begins, “Every relationship has at least one really good day.”

I don’t know why Baxter’s creative choices in The Feast of Love annoy me so much (and, to be fair, he doesn’t do this the entire book), but I think it might have to do with the physical properties of chapters. When a narrative stops and then continues on another page, I immediately assume some passage of time has elapsed or that maybe a change in perspective has occurred––there is just something psychically affecting about having to turn a page or having larger text interrupt prose. But when the scene merely continues, I am yanked out of the story and into the mind of the writer (or, more accurately, what I perceive to be the mind of the writer). So does this mean that I should try to eradicate my tendencies, open myself up to the myriad ways that chapters can function? Or do I simply use my weird shit as a helpful barometer for my taste? Should I, i.e., accept that certain books cannot and will not meet my stupid expectations and move along? There are already way too many books in this world for me to read, so maybe I should simple stop wasting my time with stuff that annoys me, even if my annoyance has zero legitimacy.

Okay, a little more time. It really pisses me off when books that have multiple parts still number the chapters as if the parts weren’t there. Díaz’s Oscar Wao does this, as do a number of bigger novels. This seems to ignore the entire purpose of Parts and Books, which to me create their own internal structure, much like the way each floor of a hotel begins numbering the rooms from 01. When writers ignore this, I tend to think of the Parts and Books to be arbitrary, an unnecessary intrusion to the larger rhythm.

But all of these weird little tics are mine and mine alone. I would never actually assume anyone else agrees or even thinks about this. I only know that when I read, these factors come into major play––justifiable or not––and help determine my assessment of a work. Even if I never mention it to others, in conversation or in a review, this stuff ends up mattering to me. Art (and art criticism) is full of unfair and unsubstantiated subjectivity like this but we love to pretend that we can approach things with cool empirical impartiality. Some can, I suppose, but I sure as hell can’t. I get stuck on chapters, on character names, on setting, on my perception of the author’s intention––because to me there isn’t any one aspect of fiction that stands above everything else. Every part of a novel or a story is a choice, made by a human being, and each part is as important as the next. And then there’s me––all-too-human, full of my own idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences and unable to stop them from taking over––responding to an author’s idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences. It’s like any relationship, I guess: the writer has their baggage, and I have mine. All I can do is hope that more often than not I stumble upon artists whose baggage is closest to mine. Because the other option would be for me to try to change these tics––which without going into too much detail I’ll just assure you is impossible.

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6 Responses to “The Art of the Chapter”

  1. ua culpa
    at 9:20 am on February 18, 2015

    “So does this mean that I should try to eradicate my tendencies, open myself up to the myriad ways that chapters can function?”


  2. Jack
    at 10:51 am on February 18, 2015

    What a missed opportunity. This is such a promising topic, and yet in place of any intellectual rigor, the author makes no real attempts at understanding any writers’ choices he doesn’t already happen to get. Not to mention the bloated, intrusive repetition of twenty slightly different ways of saying “well shucks, I guess that’s just my opinion!”–a digression that might also be interesting if explored in any way whatsoever. This is lazy writing.

  3. markhg
    at 2:45 pm on February 18, 2015

    Agreed. Very promising start then dwells on labelling. Which the author justifies, as the discussion is about the relevance of chapter titles and their usefulness.

    To be fair, we’re still leagues ahead of two other misuses of labelling:

    Electronic/modern music, where the search for pointless distinctions has become more important than the music itself.

    And the phenomenon of literary lists.

  4. Taco McTacoson
    at 3:52 pm on February 18, 2015

    I find the paragraphs of this article to be lacking in intellectual rigor.

  5. CCV
    at 5:47 pm on February 22, 2015

    And that last paragraph essentially tears down everything that preceded it…well done. How about a writer makes a choice to present their story in the manner they choose to, and you can feel about that any way you want. You can dislike an author’s choices, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those choices are wrong–as such, it boils down to an opinion, preference, what have you, and nothing more. So…this article accomplishes nothing more than what my post just did in a few sentences.

  6. CCV
    at 5:52 pm on February 22, 2015

    “So does this mean that I should try to eradicate my tendencies, open myself up to the myriad ways that chapters can function?”

    The equivalent of saying he should open himself up to the different ways a sentence works, or perhaps individual words and their connotative meanings. OF COURSE! What is this, MFA hour?

    Yeah, had to throw that dig in.

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