Writer’s Craft #90 Why Do Books Have Chapters?

Erin Lale
Erin Lale

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?

4 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #90 Why Do Books Have Chapters?

  1. Wonder whether the length of a typical scroll was more influenced by human attention span or the nature of the material used? Anyone know?

  2. Novels have chapters for the exact same reason that potato chips were invented.

    As human beings we face an awful lot of stimulation. Existence will throw typhoons and bankruptcy and plague and global warming – without even pausing to wipe the sweat from it’s all-seeing eye.

    Catastrophe will rain down upon you with the intensity of a jackhammer game of whack-a-mole.

    Chapters – like potato chips – help us break down something wonderful – into comfortable bite-sized pieces.

    It happened something like this.

    Leo Tolstoy – (known as Leo the Lion to all of his peeps) – sat down one morning and decided to write the entire Napoleonic invasion of Russia detailing the impact of Bonaparte’s era on Tsarist society. Only problem was – the man was a little short on money – so, to conserve his supply of scribbling paper (look, they hadn’t invented the keyboard yet) – he wrote the whole thing out without a single break.

    It was an intensive experience.

    He went through two marriages, six bankruptcies, one typhoon, and a bout of stuck-burp – (you know – when you’ve got a burp stuck halfway between your stomach and your belly button and it won’t let out?) – while he wrote this epic hernia of a novel.

    “Leo,” his editor said. “Have you ever heard of something called a chapter?”

    “Ach!” Leo said, on account of he had mysteriously developed a German accent while writing the Prussian parts of his novel. “Why didn’t I think of that.”

    “Try a few of these potato chips,” Leo’s editor said. “They go awesome with beer.”

    So you see – chapters were invented so that men could drink beer.

  3. Materials. It was simply too inconvenient to make a scroll that would wrap up too big. You had to unroll a scroll to read it, and every time you did, you wore it out a little, so scrolls had a limited lifespan, much shorter than the book as we know it (the codex). If you had to unroll a huge scroll to get to one part, you would doom that scroll to a shorter lifespan than if it were divided into parts — and it would be far easier to find things without going back and forth, further deteriorating the scroll. Scrolls were expensive, after all, so their possessors and creators had to use strategies to make them last long.

  4. I’ll admit to a childish delight over books without chapters. I spent too many nights forcing myself to stay awake until the light went off in my parents’ room so I could resume reading after that “yes you can finish that chapter but that’s it” left me at a cliffhanger.

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