‘From letters words are formed, from words sentences, from sentences chapters, and from chapters stories.’ Michael Ende, The Neverending Story
I love my Kindle and, in particular, that little message at the bottom of the screen telling me how much reading time I have left in the current chapter. It lets me plan whether to read another chapter before doing something else – like going to sleep! And, just occasionally, if I’m finding a book a bit slow, it depresses me by telling me I still have a bit of a slog ahead.
This got me to wondering – why do books need chapters? Here are some thoughts:
- Well, as I’ve already suggested, they provide the reader with convenient reading breaks – a chance to go and make a cup of tea, turn over and go to sleep or simply do something else.
- They bring structure to a book which would otherwise be just continuous prose (although some authors have of course utilised this form).
Sherlock Holmes: ‘You will, I am sure, agree with me that…if page 534 finds us only in the second chapter, the length of the first one must have been really intolerable.” The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- They provide the reader with a chance to pause for thought, to take in what the author has been trying to communicate. Sometimes that might mean giving a deep sigh, wiping away a tear or taking a deep breath before continuing.
- They help to set the pace of a book. It’s no surprise that thrillers tend to have short chapters, creating a sense of momentum that is in keeping with the events taking place. On the other hand, books that might be classed as “literary fiction” or “classics” tend to have longer chapters, although of course there are always exceptions.
- Chapters allow authors to construct the narrative so as to distribute cliff-hangers or twists throughout a book in order to “hook” the reader.
‘Usually, when people get to the end of a chapter, they close the book and go to sleep. I deliberately write a book so when the reader gets to the end of the chapter, he or she must turn one more page.’ Sidney Sheldon
- Chapters alert the reader to a change of narrator or time period.
- They enable the author to create inventive chapter headings or numbering systems. For instance, in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the chapter numbers are all prime numbers.
- But probably most importantly for readers, they allow us to say, “I’ll just read one more chapter….”