Monday, October 12, 2009

Eposodic Chapters

I’ve talked before about the theory of a book. One of the things that fall into the category of the theory is how we handle chapters. I’ve read some novels that have a chapter break about every two pages. I’ve read some novels that break about every seven to ten pages or more. I’ve read novels where they are all the same size and others where it varies greatly. I’ve even read one novel that had no chapters, but was broken into three parts, each of which was long enough to have been a book in its own right. There’s no right or wrong way to do chapter breaks, though I would prefer not to read another book that has no chapter breaks.

But instead of looking at where to insert a chapter break, let’s consider the structure of the chapter. Here again, there is no right or wrong answer. Some books are written as letters between two people. Others are entirely flashback. Many are written as if we are currently in the action. We do what works for the story, but one theory for the structure of chapters is what we can call episodic chapters. An episodic chapter is one which is a story complete in itself. An example of a book written this way is Oliver Twist. Pick any chapter and you will see that it has all of the elements we look for when we outline a story. Take chapter twenty-four, for example. You could read this chapter outside of the context of the rest of the book and have what amounts to a short story. If you didn’t know there were other chapters, you might not miss them.

The reason Charles Dickens wrote episodic chapters is because his work was published in magazines. A reader could read the story in the magazine and he wouldn’t be left feeling so bad about missing a previous edition or disappointed because he would have to wait to finish the story. Television is usually done this way, for the same reason. I have considered writing a story and putting it on a blog. Such an application would be another example of when episodic chapters are ideal. A blog reader may happen upon one post and read it, but he many not want to invest enough time to read the complete work or remember to come back later to read it.

If we were to outline an episodic novel, we would first start with the high level arc. Read the chapter headings from Oliver Twist and you will see the outline Charles Dickens used. They plug nicely into the outline I’ve used before. Chapters 1-5 are setup. Chapters 6 and 7 are debate. Chapters 9-13 are fun and games. Chapters 14-19 are bad guys close in. 20 and 21 are the dark night of the soul. Chapter 22 though 28 is the finale. We can then take each chapter and break it down in the same way. The novel has its protagonist, but that protagonist may or may not be the protagonist of the individual chapter.

Anne of Green Gables is another example of an episodic novel and incidentally, it too has chapter headings giving the outline of the book. When we write this way, each chapter must fit within the outline of the book. We can’t just throw a chapter in there because we would like the characters to experience some set of events. You can get by with that in television, but it should never be done in a novel. The whole of the chapter must move our overall novel plot forward, while the events of the chapter must move the chapter plot forward

Some time ago, I mentioned a sci-fi story I was contemplating. The overall story is something like this: a spaceship encounters trouble and five passengers, the captain’s son, a princess, a military officer, an engineer and an accused traitor are forced to abandon ship and land on current day Earth. They must survive while not influencing the development of technology. As they interact with the people of the community where they landed, they are placed in situations where they must choose between using the superior technology available to them or see people suffer or even die. As they look for the means to repair their ship, the princess finds herself drawn to the traitor…blah, blah, blah.

That’s the overall arc, but if we were to look at an individual episodic chapter, we would find that it is about the engineer and the captain’s son going into the village to get something they need (doesn’t really matter what). While they are there, they learn that a small child is missing and the town is mounting a search effort. This puts the five extraterrestrials at risk of discovery, so after some discussion, they use their technology to help find the girl and return her to her parents. Stand alone, the chapter is just a short story about extraterrestrials helping to find a missing girl. In the context of the larger story, it is about the decision risk influencing the development of Earth through the use of technology. What we wouldn’t want to do is to just throw this episode in there to demonstrate the alien technology.