Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Importance of Chapter Breaks

Chapter breaks are a lot more important than you might realize. The reader likes to have a chapter break so he can put the book down and go do something else for a while. That may be why some authors have taken to leaving chapter breaks out completely. Personally, I think that’s rather arrogant. Sure, we want readers to say that they never put the book down, but that isn’t really the best measure of a good book. Some of the best books are so thought provoking that the reader takes weeks to read the book, letting each point sink in before moving on. I don’t write books like that, but some people do. But chapter breaks are more important than just allowing the reader a place to put a bookmark before going to fix supper.

In my current work in progress, one of the characters is a mysterious little child whose mother has died. His mother is unknown to the other characters and the boy is unable to tell them enough for them to figure out who she is. Besides that, the boy has taken to speaking only to Sara. With the other characters, his usual response is to look right through them, as if they weren’t there. At the graveside service for his mother, Wayne tries to offer the boy encouragement and asks the boy a question, “Can I count on you to let us help you?” The next paragraph is the single line, “Bradley nodded.”

It was at that point that I chose to end the chapter. I could have easily written more about the funeral service and what followed it. As it relates to topic, a chapter break wouldn’t have been necessary for me to include that information, but by including a paragraph directly after that two word paragraph we lose significance. As is, the weight of all the previous chapters rest on those two words. Upon seeing that big splotch of whitespace following those two words, the reader will realize that is the important bit of information the whole chapter was driving to, “Bradley nodded.”

Even if all the reader does it turn to the next chapter and start reading, there is enough of a pause for the reader to consider the weight of those words. But suppose the reader really does put a bookmark in the book and goes to fix supper at this point. The thing she is thinking about as she browns the hamburger meat is, “Bradley nodded.” She has time to think back over the rest of what she has read and she can consider what is important about the fact that Bradley nodded.

So sometimes, our choice of where we put chapter breaks is a important as the words we choose.