Erin Lale is the Acquistions Editor at Eternal Press and Damnation Books and the Editor and Publisher of Time Yarns.
Imagine you’re going to the library. Now imagine you’re going to the Library of Alexandria. What physical object are you going to read when you get there? A papyrus scroll. How many words fit on a papyrus scroll? About 3,000 – 5,000. That’s the same number of words in a standard book chapter.
When bound books were invented, a book that collected writing from multiple scrolls or leaves of parchment generally set off the information previously available in separate scrolls with chapters, either numbered or titled, which were also sometimes called books (such as the Book of Daniel.) Literate people became used to reading bound and printed books with chapters, and the weight of tradition influenced writers to compose new works with the same structure.
In modern times, not all books have chapters. Most nonfiction books which naturally have sections, such as different historical periods in a history textbook, do still have chapters. Most fiction novels also have chapters, although some comparatively recent books have a modernist deconstruction of chapters. There are books with one word chapters, and books that begin with a Chapter 1 label and have no further divisions. There are books with nonconsecutive chapter numbering, books with backwards chapter numbering, such as God, A Users Guide, and even chapter numbering systems that border on a parody of the form, such as the prime numbers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Time-Time. Many of the Discworld books do not have chapters.
Modern authors who write with chapters use them for various purposes. Pacing is one. Some authors end their chapters with cliffhangers, borrowing the structure of the movie serials from the word cliffhanger derived. Most of the technological influences on the structure of fiction writing have stemmed from the technologies used to create and produce books, but that one comes from cinema. Other uses of chapters include switching points of view between characters, skipping periods of time in which nothing relevant to the story happens without having to state that directly, and the mostly 19th century practice of serializing novels in magazines.
Book publishing is in the middle of another technological revolution, on a par with the invention of the printing press. eBooks have popularized novellas and novelettes, which often have no chapters. Reading an eBook, the reader has no physical cue about whether she is reading a novel or a novella. The device on which she reads is the same size and weight regardless. Could this result in the chapterless style of novellas becoming standard for novels as well?