Writing Without Chapters

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Nov 17 2009

I’m writing a light fantasy, and was wondering if having chapters is absolutely necessary. So often do I read that people have to send in “their first three chapters” or some such thing. I never think in chapters, and just write as it comes to me, frequently alternating between different points of view. Do I have to put in the chapters later? If so, where do I put them?

Based on your question I’m going to assume that you’re still writing the book and haven’t reached the point where you’re revising or even finished yet. This is one of those tricky questions to answer because without reading the book myself I don’t know how your book without chapters is flowing. On top of that, it’s a stylistic issue, and when agents are asked general stylistic issues about books we haven’t read our answer is going to be advice about what generally works and what doesn’t. Of course that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try your own things, it just means you’re probably paving a more difficult road for yourself.

Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up let’s get to your actual question. Honestly, it sounds to me like you are still very much in the beginning stages of writing your book and that you’re going to have a lot of work to do before it’s finished. Why do I think that? Phrases like “write as it comes to me” and “frequently alternating between different points of view” gives me the sense that your style of writing is just to sit down and free-write, which means, basically, write as it comes to you. Once you reach the end of the book, I suspect you’re going to spend a lot of time doing serious edits and revisions to shape the book, and at that point you’ll probably find that chapters will make sense.

While I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head, I’m sure there have been books published without chapters. Unfortunately chapters aren’t always just a convenience to readers, giving us an easy place to put the book down and fetch another cup of coffee; they are also a part of building the story. One of the things new authors learn early on is the importance of ending a chapter at a point of tension in your story to make the reader want to come back for more. There’s a pacing to every book and chapter breaks can help add to that pacing. They can also help make things like shifting points of view easier for a reader to follow.

So yes, I think that at some point you’ll probably have to add chapters later. However, if for some reason you find that your book is more magical without them then you can probably just send along the first 35 to 50 pages, wherever you can find an appropriate break in your book that makes sense to readers.


30 responses to “Writing Without Chapters”

  1. Avatar s.w. vaughn says:

    Terry Pratchett doesn't use chapters – but he's an exception, not a rule. 🙂 You'd be hard-pressed to find a chapterless novel, or one that isn't divided in some way.

    Even Pratchett uses scene breaks. He just doesn't number them.

  2. Avatar magolla says:

    True, chapter breaks give the reader a chance to put down the book, but it also gives the reader a reason to stop reading. So the key, IMHO, is to leave a hook at the end of each chapter. A hook gives the reader incentive to continue reading.

    Speaking as a reader, not a writer, I need the chapter breaks. Life doesn't hand me tons of time to sit and read. I like to know how many pages before I can put the book down, and with a chapter hook the author is guareenteed I'll pick it back up again.

    Happy Writing!

  3. Avatar Aimee says:

    The Road by Cormac McCarthy has no chapter breaks.

  4. Avatar nauthor says:

    Jessica, you are lucky to have the joy of reading Terry Pratchett still ahead of you!

    No chapters. I never even noticed until someone pointed it out to me, which was after I'd read at least 20 of his books.

  5. Avatar writergrrrl says:

    One thing that helped me when I was working on my first couple of novels was deconstructing other published novels in my genre. I looked at how authors constructed their scenes, how they started and ended chapters, and how they handled POV, etc.

    I wouldn't worry about the structure yet. Just finish your novel, then you can think about how you might want to break it up when you're doing your revisions.

  6. Avatar Tena Russ says:

    If memory serves, one of Rosellen Brown's books (Tender Mercies?) was written with no chapters.

  7. Avatar Rowan says:

    Chapters also make it easier when the book is typeset. If your book was chapterless and you wished to add or remove text after the book had been typeset the whole book would have to be repaginated, instead of just the chapter.

  8. Avatar CKHB says:

    If there are "frequently alternating points of view" you are going to either need to be the best writer on the planet, or you are going to need chapter/scene breaks of some kind, because that's confusing as hell when done mid-story without explnation.

  9. Avatar WendyCinNYC says:

    HOMER & LANGLEY has no chapter breaks, but yeah, he's E.L. Doctorow. Not exactly a debut novelist.

    As a reader, I much prefer chapter breaks, but at the very least, clear scene breaks.

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Scott Smith's, THE RUINS, doesn't have chapters, and it was a bestseller a few summers ago.

    It's one of my favorite books and I found the lack of chapters quite appealing.

  11. Avatar Laurel says:

    I agree with CKHB. If you want a good example of this pick up Dean Koontz. Most of his books have deep POV from the MC, the villian, and occasional ancillary characters. It isn't disorienting because he's a great writer- the tone makes it clear when you jump into the head of someone new- and the POV changes follow chapter structure. David Eddings did this as well and used the same technique. Even if it is only two pages long a distinct POV is given its own chapter.

  12. Avatar Kimber An says:

    I think it's rare that this can be pulled off.

    'Free-Writing' is great for the first draft and before you start writing for others to read. Once you get serious about achieving publication though, a lot of serious learning and working has to go into structuring the novel in a way that other human beings can understand and enjoy. Point of View must be handled in a way the reader can follow.

    Probably a good place to start is to read a lot of New Releases in the target genre. Learn what the going format is these days.

    No matter how brilliant a story is, at least half of it is in the telling. If you don't tell the story in a way the reader can easily understand and enjoy, she'll drop it and find another story to read.

  13. Avatar Anonymous says:

    …Oops, my comment got cut off (I'm Anon 9:35)…

    I'll take no chapters ANY day over what I call "over chaptinating" meaning those supposed thrillers or even now in YA where you've got 85 chapters in the book, basically a new chapter every few pages.

    I know it's meant to give the writing speed and pep, but really, to me, it only calls attention to the fact that there isn't enough story or character development for a whole book and you're trying to trick the reader into thinking that your 150 page novella is a 450 page thriller. These types of books usually have two inch margins, as well. 🙂

  14. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    My writing goal is usually a chapter a day, which obviously doesn't always happen, but I realized in the current WIP (work in progress) that I was writing TO the chapter length and it was stifling the process. I decided to try writing without chapters (it's a novella) and was amazed at how much easier it's been to write this particular story. However, I fully intend to go back and add the chapter breaks at points where the tension/story/plot call for it. Still, writing w/o worrying about page count gave me a much freer environment, and I've almost completed a 28,000 word novella in under two weeks, something I've never done before.

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I get distracted easily and need a breather so find reading/writing shorter chapters a welcome relief. Yes, too-short chapters with one sentence per line bug me.

    Also for my mystery, writing shorter chapters as the suspense builds forces me to create an exciting plot-point/conclusion at the end of each chapter. In short, I wrote the kind of book I like to read. Now let's hope the agents/editors agree…

  16. Avatar Book Maven says:

    Everyone has their own natural chapter length – the one that fees right. Mine is 3,000 to 3,500 words, with the first being longer. My daughter, Rhiannon Lassiter writes naturally in 5,000 word chapters. If it feel right for you, it probably will for the reader.

    But I don't recommend no chapter breaks for a beginner.

  17. Hmmm. My paperback copy of Terry Pratchett's "Wee Free Men" has 14 chapters, with titles!

    As a children's writer, I stick to chapters–structure is important to young readers–but I also imagine that I'm reading my book to former students and try to end each chapter with a teaser that keeps them wanting more.

  18. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Having no chapters will suggest to the agent/editor that the book is a rough draft, not a completed manuscript, IMO. Like you wrote everything out but haven't decided how to structure it yet.


  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Having no chapter breaks can be a literary device, just as having super-short chapters can be a device. It's all im how you pull it off. If they ask for 3 chaps and you don't have chaps, I'd just send the first 30 pages with a note in the accompanying letter explaining why you've chosen the chapterless structure.

  20. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Or, just call the whole book Chapter 1. Ha! No not the title (although maybe that could work, too), but I mean, on page 1, it says CHAPTER ONE, and then the entire 400 p. book follows.

    Gimicky? You bet. This will only work for the first one to bring it out.

  21. Avatar Anonymous says:

    And then of course book 2 in the seires begins with CHAPTER TWO.

    and then the next is CHAPTER THREE.

    Yeah, series idea.

  22. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I would not read an entire book of run on pages.

  23. Seems to me, though it's been years since I read it, but Delores Clairborne (sp?) by Stephen King has no paragraph, or even scene breaks–it's all one long monologue by the main character.

    Of course, as Wendy said about E.L. Doctorow, Stephen King isn't exactly a debut author either.

  24. I've read plenty of books without chapters, but they all had scene breaks in some way: a dotted line, a pound sign, a lot of blank space, etc. I think if you're switching POV a lot, you need to have some way to note that to the reader. One example I haven't seen mentioned is George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, where every chapter is told from a different viewpoint, and though some of the characters are thousands of miles apart, there are enough references to events in other areas to tie the story into a cohesive whole.

    I usually write in chapters, but I'm in the middle of a long practice book where I'm experimenting a lot (very rough draft, believe you me), and a third of the way in, I abandoned chapters. I was worrying too much about the length of one relative to the other. However, I fully intend to go back and add chapter breaks in on the revision, and have been noting good break points for such a purpose. You could do the same thing–just jot down a place when you realize it would be good to leave off, such as mini-cliffhangers, conclusions of a story arc, major changes in scene, etc.

  25. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I think if you are trying to get your foot in the door, you should start with the non-experimental foot. No chapters and multiple pov shifts…my eyes are already hurting. I'm starting to have more respect and sympathy for agents who spend their days reading first chapters of unpublished books.

  26. "Under Pressure" (AKA The Dragon in the Sea) a sci-fi classic by Frank Herbert has no chapter breaks; I read it as a boy and I was surprised by that fact. I found it puzzling, but I was able to adapt. My brother said that chapters are for lazy writers who can't maintain a narrative flow. LOL

  27. Avatar Chris says:

    As a reader I think that chapters are an important framework to enable me to catalogue what happens in a story and, therefore, to follow the happenings in a more enjoyable way. In other words, if the author has done the events classification for me it makes my part easier.

    As an author, my personal experience and my way of working demands that I plan a framework for my novel to enable me to write productively. At a practical level this is, I find, best done in chapters.

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph's Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings

  28. Great post. There are lots of different ways to use chapters. For S.W.Vaughn, yeah, Terry Prachett is definitely an exception. He's such a brilliant storyteller.

    Some novelists use longer chapters and some shorter. Some enclose each scene within a chapter, some end chapters in the middle of the biggest conflict in the scene, at a cliff hanger. Used like that, the chapter break can even heighten the suspense of the conflict. If the chapter break wasn't there, there would be no cliff hanger, the reader would just keep reader without that pause to go, "WOW!"

    I think the main thing is to do whatever is best for the story.

    My favorite, as a reader and writer, is to break chapters at the most exciting part, where readers want to read more. As a reader, it can make it difficult for me to put the book down and go to bed, but as a writer, that's exactly what we want, right?

  29. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Ceremony, by Leslie Silko has no chapters, and alternatating PoVs. Silko also believes time is cyclical, not linear, and her novel shows that; time and place change with no warning and the reader is just expected to keep up and figure it out.

    It's a very confusing book, and I didn't like it at all. But there are some academics who do. Though, I expect it's a case of The Emperor's New Clothes, where they don't get it, but want to seem intelligent by pretending they do.

    Overall, I would not recommend someone do this, but there are things I wouldn't have recommended someone do, and the books have sold well. So, if you can do it well and it finds the right audience, it could work. Maybe.

  30. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the reactions, all.

    I guess because I read so many Terry Pratchett (indeed, no chapters), I figured I could do without them.

    Right now I'm almost done writing the book, then I'll go back in the first revision and see where I can put some logical chapters. It still feels to me like I'm putting it in just for the sake of having chapters, not to make the book better. But I suppose it won't get worse, either.

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