Essential writing skills: what I learned from Jack Kerouac about chapters

One of the major battles Jack Kerouac had to fight when publishing On The Road was his lack of divisions.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...
The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one…

His editors won; the book as originally published had divisions – I wouldn’t exactly call them chapters. And with good reason. Divisions, usually chapters, are an expected part of a book – a useful device for highlighting the structure. If set up right, they act as defined break points for readers. Good all round, unless you’re Jack Kerouac.

His point, of course, was to do with flows of consciousness – with sharing his mind process with the world and presenting his beat-gen anthem as he conceived it.

It was a valid point, and these days editions of the book are available in the original ‘scroll’ form.

Other authors – well, we all use chapters…don’t we. And that raises questions about such niceties as whether to name or to number. It’s a moot point. Nineteenth century practise was clear. Fiction and non-fiction alike were the same. A chapter could be given a title that summarised the contents. Or, if it was just numbered, it often included a pot-summary, headline-style:

“Chapter MCXXXVI: In which Our Hero, having Undergone Many Trials and Tribulations, Discovers the Wonders of the Aerial Steam Railway, but Not Before Losing His Tube Of Brass Polish and Thus Rendering His Goggles Completely Tarnished By Coal Smuts, To His Dismay and That Of His Companions.”

Readers then go on to read how the hero, who had undergone 1185 previous chapters of trials and tribulations, discovers a steam railway and is embarrassed by the way the smoke dulls his brass goggles.

All well and good for the Penny Dreadfuls – and, these days, for novels harking back to the style. But is telegraphing the entire contents of a chapter really the way to go?

Chapter titles have the same effect on smaller scale, which is why some authors simply number their chapters. And, of course, a word out of place in a non-fiction chapter title is a red rag to academics, for whom any discrepancy between promised and actual content is a lever for denying worth in the rival intellectual.

My answer? ‘It depends’. Both approaches are useful – the actual answer has to flow from the fundamental questions of purpose and intent. What fits the intended style of the book and the statements it makes?

Sometimes, as Kerouac showed us, it might even be better to dispense with the whole apparatus – titles,  numbers and even chapters.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond
Click to buy print edition from Fishpond
Click to buy e-book from Amazon
Click to buy e-book from Amazon

12 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: what I learned from Jack Kerouac about chapters

  1. This is very interesting Matt. I have not thought about this before. I guess as a reader I expect to see a short chapter title in non-fiction. However, now that I think about it, I have seen short two or three word titles in some novels. I can’t say that either titles or numbers has affected my reading experience one way or the other.

    1. It’s often a stylistic choice by the author as much as anything else – I guess the rule of thumb would be to make the ‘number or name’ and ‘length of name’ decision consistent with whatever the angle of the rest of the book was – in Kerouac’s case, of course, leading to ‘no chapters’… But as you say, whether that affects the reader particularly is entirely another matter. Funnily enough, I have a book coming out next month in which my original idea about chapters was changed, at publisher suggestion, for being not commercial enough. On reflection, they were right – I’m not too precious about such matters.

  2. As a layout designer I do get tired of authors who divide their novel into dozens of tiny chapters for no apparent reason. The current WIP for a client has 85 chapters in 300 pages and is punishingly choppy to read. As for chapter titles beyond a simple Chapter Eight or Chapter 8, I see little point to them in a novel but they can be useful in non-fiction books.
    Those old-fashioned Capitalised Summaries of Everything in the Chapter used to drive me mad as a reader!

    1. Yes- if the chapters are there, it has to be for a reason, not ‘oh, I think I’ll put in a chapter break here…’ But that does seem to happen a lot. In theory, if the book’s well structured, the chapter breaks should be obvious and almost automatic. Sigh.

      Incidentally, we’re going to be hit by a CME within 12 hours, a G3 strength geomagnetic storm to follow. Well below apocalypse level, luckily. Bullet dodged…this time…

  3. I use chapter numbers. However. because my books are about early Christian history, Under the number in some chapters, I title the time… such as Feast of Trumpets etc. Just to help the reader orientate, to why some things are happening.
    I would not like a great long chapter heading like the example you used. LOL It made me smile, and I need a smile today.

  4. I’m currently working on a first draft and I’m finding myself doing chapter titles followed by a quote (my book is about a contemporary philosopher and the quotes are from Plato). These are usually meant to provoke a comparison or ask a question. Other times, I don’t have a chapter divide at all. I’m wondering what your take is on consistency with POV and chapter divisions, chapter length, etc.

    1. It’s possible, in theory, to bounce around with different POV, different chapter lengths and so forth. But it’s demanding and very difficult to pull off well. I’m going to start running more writing posts in a few weeks, exploring some of these things. That said, it’s always worth a try. Write some material that way, stick it in a drawer, and leave it for a month. Come back and re-read. If it doesn’t work after the cooling-off period, set that aside and re-write from a single POV with more balanced chapter lengths. Writing ‘thrown away’ like that isn’t actually wasted, because the ideas are preserved – and the act of writing and re-writing is all grist to the experience mill.

  5. I used to name all my chapters, usually in some sort of theme (in one book, all chapter titles were Biblical, in a way that related to the contents but were not “spoilers” for the chapter). Recently, I’ve abandoned that use. Mostly because I have other things to edit in each draft, and because my chapters so often get reshuffled/divided. I may slap on some chapter titles when I reach a final draft though. I think they can be a nice touch.

    1. That titling can often be done towards the end. Frequently I find myself revising chapter titles in my non-fiction books, often close to the point where I am scrabbling to complete the MS for publisher submission. I think sometimes the true scope of the chapter – and its name – doesn’t become obvious until the chapter has been well pondered.

  6. I just recently discovered Kate Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Case Histories, etc.) who uses a word or phrase for her chapters if there is a change in POV or date. Behind the Scenes was her debut novel I understand, and it is brilliant in its narrative structure. In general, Atkinson’s books are quite strong in narrative, and she weaves events together in ways that startle, I think. Guess I am mentioning this because I really pay attention to her chapter headings.

    In addition, there are those novels where time is critical–Night Circus, a debut novel, did this quite well, I think–the effect was carousel-like. I admit it has taken me a while to “accept” novels with multiple POV. Skillfully done, it is a thing of beauty, and I really admire it. Looking forward to reading your take on this as I would like to try it in my fiction but my traditional ways yank me back.

    Once, again, great post, Matthew!
    Karen

Comments are closed.