Podcast

108 – Chapters, What Are They Good For?

The Mythcreant Podcast

If you’ve ever wondered why authors bother to divide their books into numbered chunks called chapters, this is the podcast for you. Chapters are present in nearly every novel published today, but they’re something we don’t often think about. This week we are joined by new guest host Kristin, and with her help we unravel the mystery. Are chapters a place for the reader to pause and get some sleep, or is their job to make the reader want to continue? Are cliffhangers a good idea? When should you divide your novel into parts? Will Chris ever stop being mad when a novel is divided into more than one “book?” Listen to find out!

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Terry Pratchett’s full quote on chapters: “Life doesn’t happen in chapters — at least, not regular ones. Nor do movies. Homer didn’t write in chapters. I can see what their purpose is in children’s books (“I’ll read to the end of the chapter, and then you must go to sleep”) but I’m blessed if I know what function they serve in books for adults.”

The Tommyknockers

A Song of Ice and Fire

Lies of Locke Lamora

Harry Potter

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Transcript

Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Mike Hernandez, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]

This episode is brought to you by our patrons: Kathy Ferguson, professor of Political Theory in Star Trek; and Ari Ashkenazi.


Chris: Welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…

Oren: Oren.

Chris: And, we have special guest Kristin, who is also one of our copy editors. Thanks for joining us, Kristin.

Kristin: Hi, thanks for having me.

Chris: Do you want to give us just an introduction to yourself, real quick?

Oren: Who are you, even? [Kristin laughs]

Kristin: Who am I? That is such a good question. Existentially-  no. So, I love reading. I do a lot of reading in my spare time, and I play a lot of RPGs and board games and things like that. I also do copy editing and beta reading and things like that for Mythcreants, and also for a couple friends. But yeah, I’m a teacher in real life, so, I get to work with kids. [laughs] Which is always, always amazing.

Oren: And like, the age group that you’re working at is perfect for podcasting, I think.

Kristin: It totally is, you know? I really think that those four-year-olds are really gonna understand the whole podcasting idea.

Oren: Yeah, they are tearing up the podcasts.

Kristin: They really are. [laughter]

Oren: So, Chris, what are we talking about today? I forgot.

Chris: Chapters. What are they even good for?

Oren: Uh, absolutely nothing. [Chris and Kristin laugh]

Kristin: I have a slight disagreement on that. [Kristin and Chris laugh]

Oren: Okay, guys, I gotta read you this quote that I got, from my man Terry Pratchett, who is probably my favorite author, so, even though this quote makes no sense, I am obligated to agree with it, because he’s my favorite author. [Chris and Kristin laugh] Cause, he doesn’t use chapters in most of his books; he started using them eventually, but for the most part, he doesn’t use chapters in his Discworld books.

Chris: We might want to define what a chapter is, cause I think- some authors, like Pratchett, just have- what they have is scene breaks, really. But they don’t ever group them together. I feel like what distinguishes a chapter is- I mean, they can be of very different lengths, but it’s usually more than one scene, and they have a bigger break with a title.

Oren: Yeah, I think.

Kristin: Yes. I would agree with that.

Oren: Okay, so, this is why- he was asked why he doesn’t use chapter breaks, and he says: “Life doesn’t happen in chapters — at least, not regular ones. Nor do movies. Homer didn’t write in chapters. I can see what their purpose is in children’s books (“I’ll read to the end of the chapter, and then you must go to sleep”) but I’m blessed if I know what function they serve in books for adults.” [laughter]

Chris: By the way, Kristin, is the ‘I will read to the end of this chapter, then you must go to sleep,’ is that something you use with kids? Is that something you do?

Kristin: Yes. [laughter] It is also something I use with myself; so, it’s actually a personal sort of, like, timeframe, cause especially if I’m reading late at night, and I’m like, ‘oh hey, I can finish this chapter and then go to bed,’ it gives me an endpoint, where it’s like, ‘okay, at the end of this, I have to be done.’ [Kristin and Chris laugh]

Chris: I especially love the argument ‘life doesn’t happen in chapters.’ It’s like, ‘well, life doesn’t have neat narrative arcs, either.’ [laughter]

Kristin: Oh, no. The story kind of gets all jumbled in the middle- [laughs] -in life, and you have like, four or five different story arcs going on at one time, and it’s really hard to keep them straight.

Oren: Real life is just very badly edited. I don’t agree with it. I think it needs a better- it needs some red ink, is what it needs.

Kristin: There we go. [laughs]

Oren: And like, it’s interesting because- so, Pratchett did eventually start using chapter breaks.

Chris: Oh, he did.

Oren: He did.

Kristin: Aah.

Chris: Do we have another quote from him with his concession speech? [laughter]

Oren: Not that I could find. He uses them in his children’s books and some of his later adult books. And they have like- so, he kind of went from not using chapters at all, to going like, super overboard. Cause on his later books, like in Going Postal- this is one of his chapter intros. Cause most chapters will be like, ‘Chapter Four.’ Sometimes the chapters will have a title, right? This one goes:

“Chapter Seven: The Invention of the Hole; Mr. Lipwig Speaks Out; The Wizard in a Jar; A Discussion of Lord Vetinari’s Backside; A Promise to Deliver; Mr. Hobson’s Boris.” And it’s like, what is that? What just happened?

Kristin: Wait, so, are all those chapter headings, or is that like, an outline of what he wants to talk about in this chapter? [laughs]

Oren: That’s basically it. I heard it- on the message board where I found this, they were describing it as a ‘taster’.

Chris: I feel like ‘teaser’ is probably a better term for that.

Kristin: Yeah.

Oren: But I like ‘taster’.

Chris: No! [melodramatic]

Oren: I thought that was a funny way to describe it. [laughter]

Chris: I guess ‘taster’ is close to the word teaser, but it’s so close; why don’t you just use the word teaser. It’s an already established term for like, movie previews that are so short that they’re just- never mind.

Oren: Chris, I am a beautiful and unique snowflake- [Chris laughs] -and I will use my own words, thank you very much.

Chris: You know what, I’m not one to talk; we make up terminology all the time at Mythcreants. [laughter]

Kristin: See, but then you get the confusion of the whole cooking side of things, where it’s like, ‘oh wait, are you actually tasting something?’ [laughter] ‘Are we doing like, a cupcake bake-off here?’ [laughs]

Oren: That’ll be a different episode. [Kristin laughs]

Chris: Let’s rename chapters, also, and every part of a book, so that it has a cupcake analogy.

Kristin: There we go.

Oren: So, my understanding of chapters is that they give you a place to pause and put the book down for a while. And I always considered this analogous to what’s called an ‘exit point’ in a video game, where you have a point where you’re playing, and then you hit a- in some games, they were literally save points, and then in other games, they were just areas where everything was calm for a moment, where you could stop and not immediately think you were going to die.

And that would give you a chance to put the game down and go do other things. And I always felt chapters were kind of analogous to that. Just something that lets your audience put down the story for a little while without feeling super anxious.

Chris: I think they’re also easier to remember than page numbers, right?

Kristin: Yes, definitely. Especially when you have different sized books, and then different page numbers can be applicable there.

Oren: That’s true. It can be really hard to find things in a Discworld book, because if you’re reading it in like, the big hardcover version, the page numbers might be different than on the e-book or the paperback version; and there are no chapter numbers in a lot of these books, so you’re like, ‘when did that happen?’ ‘It’s about a third of the way through the book.’ ‘Thanks, that’s really helpful.’ [laughs]

Chris: And I would say the other advantage of that descriptive title is that it also helps you like, even if you don’t remember the chapter number, by looking at the chapter titles- if they’re descriptive, that will also give you an idea of where you left off.

Kristin: Exactly. And it kind of gives you an overview- like, some of the chapter headings that people use will give you an overview, like, ‘oh, it’s going to be about this character’s point-of-view.’ So, it’s also a really good way to switch point-of-views.

A really good one that comes to mind for me was George R.R. Martin, where each chapter is a completely different character, and you might have other characters that have their own chapters in that chapter, but everything is told from the chapter- who the character is in the chapter heading. So, it gives it a really easy way to delineate who’s speaking and who’s thinking.

Chris: Yeah, that gets into chapter breaks as sort of transitions, that are like a scene break where you usually have several blank lines but are bigger. And I feel like, for a writer like Martin, when you have tons of POV characters, not only does that make it clear to the reader who the new POV character is, but it also eases up some of the burden of having to make sure that the POV character is clear in those first few sentences. If you just name who it is- [laughter]

You can kind of be more creative with your chapter openings than you could be if you weren’t doing that technique.

Kristin: You can be like, ‘I was feeling this,’ and you don’t have to say who was talking. [laughs]

Oren: Okay, so what you’re saying is that these are- that like, putting your POV character’s name at the start of the chapter is a crutch that weakens your writing, and no writer should ever do it. [Chris laughs] You should just be able to tell immediately who the new POV character is from like, their- I don’t know, if there’s an umlaut over some of their letters or not, you’ll know. [Chris and Kristin laugh]

Like, intuit it through the ether, I think is definitely the lesson that I’m getting from this.

Kristin: But didn’t we just say that it allows you to be more creative? And therefore, it allows you to- because you know who the character is, it allows you to open up your chapter however it is that you want to open it up.

Oren: Hmmm… But back in my day- [Chris and Kristin laugh] -we had to identify characters uphill both ways. [Kristin laughs] It was very difficult.

Kristin: In the snow?

Oren: Oh yeah, definitely.

Chris: I mean, I wouldn’t- I do think that it is a little dangerous, because I feel like this works because you only need to remember that name at the top of the chapter as you are starting the chapter. Whereas, if you- if the writer leans too much on chapter titles to provide the reader with information, and they’re expected to remember it-

In my Tommyknockers critique by Stephen King, there’s this really weird thing where the main character- what is happening is that she has discovered a little piece of metal sticking out in the woods that is actually the little, tiny piece of a ship that is under the ground. But the thing is that, in the narrative, it does not say that this thing is a ship, except for in these weird- a couple weird places where it looks like a metaphor, and it is compared to another kingdom metaphor.

The only time it ever says that there’s a ship is in a part where like, a book- which is another rant, but a section title, basically, that says, ‘The Ship in the Ground,’ or something. ‘The Ship in the Earth.’ And then it’s almost like you’re expected to remember that.

Kristin: So, it’s presented as being a metaphor, but it’s actually real?

Chris: Well, that’s a- it’s hard to tell exactly what King’s intent was, cause it’s not very clear. But there is a certain level thinking that maybe he assumed all of his readers would know that this thing was part of a ship, even though he had never actually told them it was a ship, instead of- except for in a section title that happened earlier, that you could not expect people to remember.

It’s just very out-of-context, right? So, if you were to use a chapter title that was about something in the middle of the chapter, and it felt very out-of-context as a chapter title, expecting somebody to remember that information and actually use it mid-chapter would not be a good idea.

Oren: Yeah. In general, I think it’s a bad idea to put spoilers in your title. [Chris and Kristin laugh] Because like, Tommyknockers is a mystery story, at least that part of it is, and it’s supposed to be creepy, and we’re like, ‘what is this weird thing that she’s tripped over that’s giving her psychic vibrations, or whatever?’

And it’s like, at the beginning of the chapter, it’s called ‘The Ship in the Earth.’ That’s like, ‘oh, it’s a ship. Okay. It’s an alien spaceship. I’m glad we solved that mystery. Thanks, King.’ [Kristin laughs]

Chris: Somehow, it manages to mess up both ways, where it’s like, if you don’t see it, it’s kind of potentially confusing, and if you do see it, it’s a spoiler.

Oren: It would be like if Martin had titled the first Game of Thrones book ‘The Death of Eddard Stark.’ [Chris and Kristin laugh] Right? That’s what that book, ‘John Dies at the End’ is making fun of. It’s making fun of a super descriptive title. And honestly, that’s a problem with actual titles, but don’t do it with your chapters, either, I guess is the lesson from this?

Chris: But Martin’s technique of just having the character name works because it’s very utilitarian information that aids the transition and makes it so that he can be more creative. It’s not good, though, if you were to look through all of the chapters; if you were to have like, a table of contents at the beginning of the book- [Kristin laughs]

Kristin: ‘Oh, look, this character stops having chapters halfway through the book. I wonder if they die.’ [Chris and Kristin laugh]

Chris: So, if- the ability to open a table of contents and glance through the chapters and get an idea of where you left off, that is not a good match. [Kristin laughs]

Oren: Well, see, you say that, but as an- I have an editing class that I’m taking right now, and to do this- one of the assignments was to look at various timelines- like, books that have different timelines, and the only way I was able to do this was that the third book of the Southern Reach series, Acceptance, has its chapters in the table of contents noted by the name of their POV character, so I was able to easily scan around and be like, ‘okay, we’re in this timeline here, so I can use-’

So, think of the editing student who has an assignment to do. [Kristen and Chris laugh]

Chris: Doesn’t that only work because some of the characters are dead in the present time? [Chris and Kristin laugh] So, you know this must be the past, cause that character is dead and otherwise shouldn’t have a viewpoint.

Oren: Yes. That was definitely- [Kristin and Chris laugh] So, we’ve kind of covered the idea of putting the POV character’s name at the start of a chapter, which can make everything clearer and requires less confusion on the part of the audience.

I’m just wondering, for both of you, at what point does it become too much information? Because some authors like to put dates and places at the start of the title- start of each chapter. Some authors like to put bits of poetry, or like, some excerpt from a book that’s in the universe. When does it become too much?

Kristin: I think at that point. [laughter] Unless the little bit of poetry has a clear impact on the chapter, or the excerpt from the book has a clear reason for being at the head of the chapter, like, there’s going to be information pulled from it later, I don’t see where it’s useful to have that sort of stuff.

It’s creative, in a way, and I can totally give them props for that, in being creative, and being like, ‘oh, hey, I’m going to try to flesh out my world more with my headings.’ But it doesn’t give the reader important information, or it’s not a short little ‘this is what this chapter is about, in a three-word sentence.’ [laughs] Or a five-word sentence. Then, it gets a little wordy, and then you’re reading information that’s extraneous.

Chris: Yeah, I would agree with that for- I think how- I’m not sure that there’s any amount that is too much, so much as, you have to look at the utility of each piece of information and see if it works. I would agree with poetry, it has a tendency to come off as very pretentious, and if it’s something that’s relevant to the theme of the chapter, the reader doesn’t know the theme of the chapter yet.

And so, it has to work without knowing any of the context, and then seem relevant later and actually useful, and I feel like that’s too hard, and too much, it feels like it’s about the author’s ego, and not actually about the story. Not that it’s not possible for poetry- like, snippets at the beginning of chapters to work; I just feel like that’s a very difficult challenge.

I think something that works a little better, but also can be too much, is if you have like, little news clippings and stuff. Like, if you have a chapter that takes place from a POV character, but then you have- it’s almost like somebody was putting together a scrapbook, and they took a piece- a news broadcast or something. Because that can then- it’s easy to use those to be informative.

Like, they have a very utilitarian purpose. And I feel like, even with those, it might be a good idea to make it so that they add something if the reader reads some, but if the reader skips them- [Chris and Kristin laugh] -then you don’t need to know them. That’s still a little tricky, but I feel like that at least has a purpose.

For dates, I feel- I have a problem with people actually putting down dates, because I feel like if you just use ‘December 12, 1987,’ you have to remember what the previous date was for that to feel relevant, and that’s very difficult. But if you had something like ‘three weeks later,’ I feel like that would actually be- that would work just like having the POVs name up there. It would be a way to unburden the beginning of your chapter from having to do some of that transitional work.

Oren: So, I know that you really liked how, in Lies of Locke Lamora- [Chris laughs] -not only do they use dates, but they use fantasy dates that don’t mean anything- [Kristin laughs] -to indicate that we’re in a flashback now.

Chris: I could not understand the dating system. I could not. I just…

Oren: I know you really liked that, so clearly, that’s a positive example for the readers. [laughter]

Chris: Oh, gosh, yeah. That was… But yeah, so, I guess I would never say there’s ever too much or too little, it’s just that if you keep putting in more, every piece of information has to be useful, and that’s going to get harder- [laughs] -the more you stuff in.

Oren: Yeah.

Kristin: And when you use specific dates, to me, then a lot of times, I find myself flipping back to the last chapter and being like, ‘what was the date of the last chapter?’ [laughs] Especially if it’s taken me a couple days to get through a chapter or something, like if I didn’t have a lot of time to read, or something like that.

Then I get to the end, and I’m like, ‘oh wait, that date. How soon after the previous date is that? How much time has passed?’

Chris: That’s definitely a usability fail right there. I’d like to talk a little bit about- so, the tension between the writer wanting the reader to continue and giving the reader a convenient stopping place. Because I think we can agree as readers that it is- chapters are convenient. Apparently, even Pratchett had to admit that at some point.

But a lot of writers, they want their book to be gripping, and it’s reality that if you give them a convenient place to stop, there’s always a chance that they will stop and not come back. And yes, you should make your book more interesting so that they want to come back, that’s definitely true.

At the same time, all else being equal, if your book has some gripping sections and some slow sections, putting in- I can understand why writers are nervous about chapter breaks. And some writers resort to putting in cliffhangers. [laughs]

Oren: I was going to say, that’s, I think, a good strategy to end every chapter with a cliffhanger. [laughter]

Kristin: So, I actually have written down, as one of the things that I wanted to talk about, was building suspension within chapters. It can be a very useful tool to build suspension within your book, of like, you end the chapter with this cliffhanger, whether it’s major or minor, is up to the author.

But I’ve also seen it overdone. [laughs] And that can get really annoying, where it’s like, every chapter you’re reading ends on this thing of like, ‘oh no! What’s going to happen next?’

Chris: And it’s like, why do chapter breaks?

Kristin: Exactly. [laughs]

Chris: Why are you doing chapter breaks if you’re doing everything in your power to make that not a good stopping point?

Kristin: And so, in that instance, I can totally agree with Oren that the chapters are maybe not as useful there as they could be. [laughs]

Chris: Personally, I think that if you end every chapter with a cliffhanger, you’re just kinda being a jerk. Like, it’s not a nice thing to do to your readers, and a lot of your readers will know that. But I do think there is a balance, that putting hooks at the end of chapters is a good idea, it’s just that there’s a balancing act that has to take place between doing the cliffhanger and just letting everything resolve.

Cause I do think that, if you let the tension drop altogether at the end of the chapter, then it is more likely that they won’t pick it up again. And if you put just the right level of hook, you can add interest and make them want to come back without making so that they feel like nothing is resolved if they put the book down.

Kristin: Exactly. Really, it should just be- in my mind, there should be a good majority of chapters that you get to the end of, and whatever the minor little issue within the chapter might be resolved, but the overarching theme that your book is following is still going, and therefore, that should be what is pulling the reader to keep reading.

Chris: And I feel like a nice little reminder- like, if you have a central mystery that has not been resolved at the end of the chapter, a nice little reminder, like getting another clue, for instance, at the end of the chapter, that’s mysterious, is a good way to do that. Or, having something else that-

But I feel like the key here is that, when you have a cliffhanger, it’s like, you have the primary conflict of the chapter that does not end with the chapter, right? Whereas a lot of times with a hook, that conflict ends, but then you start the seeds of the new conflict before the chapter ends.

So, you still have that resolution, and you just start something new a little bit, and that feels- because, when you start a conflict, generally things are much, much less tense; then, of course, you get to the climax of that conflict. So, as a result, your hook is kind of at the right level.

Kristin: It still makes people want to read, but it’s not that thing of like, ‘oh my gosh, I’m at the height of this conflict. What is going to happen?’ [laughs]

Oren: Okay, so it’s a way to like, give your reader something to look forward to without being a jerk; or, as I like to call it, an ‘Alpha Writer.’

Chris: An Alpha Writer?

Oren: Yeah, that’s a-

Kristin: I can see that term; I’m maybe revealing a little bit too much about myself here, but I do read a bit of fanfiction, and one of my biggest complaints with writers is the fact that they alpha write, where it’s- everything is big, big, big, big, big, and there’s nothing small happening.

Oren: Okay, I was just making a joke about how some people think being a jerk is like, good, cause it makes you dominant- [Kristin laughs] -but you made it deep. You took it and made it into like, a real thing, so, congratulations.

Chris: And just to be clear, telling us you read fanfic is not too much information. We are not into fanfic-shaming at Mythcreants. We like fanfic just fine.

Oren: Here’s a question: how analogous can chapters be to episodes of a television show? Like, something like Avatar: The Last Airbender that has a continuous story throughout. Do you think that an episode could be roughly equivalent with a chapter?

Chris: I think that’s one of the things that’s actually useful about chapters, is that- chapters are obviously used in novels, which are very long, and I think it’s very useful for novels to have a fractal structure, where- if you don’t have arcs in between the beginning and the end, the middle really ends up sagging quite a lot.

I’m sure that there are some writers who have made it work, but personally, when I was doing my epic novel writing project, that I’ve set aside for now, I went back later and then reformed the sort of muddlesome middle into chapters, because that gave me another unit to have a story arc at, where you have a conflict that is central to each chapter but is a part of the greater overarching plot.

Very much like an episode in a series- in a tv series, that has kind of a continuous plot arc. I think it would be a problem if they were completely episodic, like TNG, for instance- Star Trek: The Next Generation is an example of a show where each episode is completely independent, story-wise, from the others. So, I think that would be a bad idea. But I find, as a writer, that having that unit of that size was really helpful in the plotting and adding structure to the book.

Kristin: Yeah, I agree that chapters and episodes of tv shows can definitely kind of be a little bit analogous in that, where- you do get the shows where it is very sort of episodic-based, and that would not work as a chapter- book, sort of thing, where you don’t really have an overarching story.

And speaking from my own personal experience, Doctor Who actually does that a lot, where a lot of their stories are very one-off shots. And yes, it’s about this- the Doctor travelling through space and time, but every episode is very much sort of insular. The few episodes that are overarching themes with the two, three-episode arcs, but for the most part things are one-episodes.

And then- that really wouldn’t work in a story form in terms of a chapter, where you’re reading about this guy’s life, and each episode being a chapter. It would be a little disjointed. [laughs] I think.

Chris: I think a really good example of this is actually Harry Potter. Harry Potter is actually very well plotted. I feel- maybe not the seventh book. [Kristin laughs] It’s not like it’s perfect. But it has really great fractal structure, and I think it really helps that Rowling, for each book, keeps the same format, where we have one year of school, and we have a single viewpoint. And that kind of helps- I think that really helped her in plotting.

But I think the plotting is actually one of the strengths of the Harry Potter books and one of the reasons why they were so popular. And if you look through there, she has very neat fractal arcs- fractal structure, where she has an overarching series arc, and then each book has its own arc. And then you can get further down there and divide the chapters into arcs. Like, one chapter might be about a big upcoming Quidditch game.

And it does very well for keeping the overall plot and conflict of the books, but the same time, having those arcs that give you a place to stop, but then puts hooks at the end of each chapter.

Kristin: And also, she does the thing where every book is very… modeled after the first one, I guess would be the way to put it, where Harry starts at the Dursleys, and then goes to school. Things happen throughout the year; you get to the end of the year and the big conflict happens. [laughs]

Yeah, that definitely- because it’s very predictable, it allowed her to, as the books- as Harry got further along in school, it allowed her to have sort of more little arcs throughout the chapters, or throughout the book itself, because you knew the overarching arc of how the story was going to go.

Chris: And you could potentially do that with something that was less like, severely structured as Harry Potter. Something that was more, different kinds of storylines; you could still have that neat fractal structure. I feel like that made it easier for her. That made it a lot easier, that she had this reliable system that she could follow.

And probably one of the reasons that the seventh book has portions that really sag is because breaking out of that structure- yeah. And it was just a very different change in tone, she was switching it up, and… you know.

But I feel like that’s a really good example of how those chapters can also work as kind of- to create an inner narrative arc that sort of gives structure to those middle portions of a very long work.

Oren: So, Chris, we’re almost out of time here; I remember you said you had something of a rant to go on about like, chapters that are called books? [Chris and Kristin laugh] What does that even mean? I don’t understand.

Chris: They’re not usually chapters; they’re usually parts, or sometimes- like, cause a part is usually a grouping of chapters, and then sometimes, people want an even larger grouping above parts. I just- it really is a pet peeve of mine when there’s a section inside a book that’s called a book. [Kristin and Oren laugh] And it must be traditional, people must be used to it. I just- but like, I don’t care, I want it to stop.

Oren: Look, there’s- are you saying there’s something confusing about it being like, ‘this is book three in book two of this series.’ You’re just not- [Chris groans] [laughter]

Kristin: No, it’s only confusing when you get to ‘this is book twenty in book three of book four.’ [laughs]

Chris: See, that’s the thing, is, I’m almost wondering, why even have those types of divisions? Because how often do you hear people refer to like, ‘I am in book this of this,’ because usually people care more about what chapter it is.

And even part divisions don’t seem to be very useful for people. I mean, sometimes, if they mark major turning points in the story, I feel like they can be kind of nice. But like, rarely would you need a part and then also a book. [Kristin laughs] Often, ‘book’ is just a word for part, and it’s like, ‘why didn’t you just call it a part?’ [laughs]

Kristin: Cause they’re being- they’re using their creative skills to not follow the mainstream of what everyone else is calling it.

Chris: I feel like it must be an old thing of some kind. Like, before- predating most of our normal conventions or something. I don’t know, but it just- the whole physical binding is the book, okay? [Kristin and Chris laugh]

Oren: I also suspect that some writers, for whatever reason, don’t like really high chapter numbers, so they have- cause you actually see this in video games, too; where, after a game has come out a certain number of times, they stop calling it ‘Final Fantasy Whatever,’ and they invent a new name for it.

It’s like, ‘this isn’t Final Fantasy XXV (25), this is Final Fantasy: Crystal Saga.’ And it’s like, ‘it’s Final Fantasy XXV, guys; it’s the twenty-fifth Final Fantasy game.’ But they don’t like calling it that. And I think authors have a similar thing with chapter numbers, so like, splitting the book into multiple books can give them an excuse to reset the chapter count. Which I think is kind of pointless, but some authors seem to like that. I don’t entirely know why.

Chris: I can understand why having high numbers would make something feel sort of unimportant and trivial. But like, I feel like you could make bigger chapters? Or- [laughter] -something else. Something- besides having a book inside of a book.

Kristin: But they don’t want to have higher chapters; you have to appreciate their wants and dislikes. [laughs]

Chris: Just don’t number them, okay? [Kristin laughs] Just don’t number your chapters; just give them names and don’t number them, alright? [laughs]

Oren: Alright, well, we are out of time for this episode. Thank you for joining us, Kristin.

Kristin: You’re very welcome. [laughs] It’s been a lot of fun.

Oren: Yeah. So, if anything we said piqued your interest, those of you at home, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. And otherwise, we will talk to you next week. [closing song]

 

Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

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Comments

  1. Bryony

    The book within a book confuses me too. It’s a bit like the acts in a play, but I don’t get those either when it goes over two. I used to think the acts were for giving intervals, but some have 5 acts which is too many intervals.

  2. ben_

    Great Title for a Podcast-Episode! Gave me the first laugh on a monday morning! Thanks!

  3. Elias

    Why stop there? What good are periods? Question marks? Punctuation in total? Spaces even? Why not string our little words together willy nilly and Willie Nelson and leave the reader to figure it all out?

    • A Perspiring Writer

      Did you mean: Ulysses?

      (Seriously the last chapter of that book has like two bits of punctuation like what)

  4. Meri

    Re: the sections of books being called “book [X]” – I kind of wonder if in fantasy it’s people trying to emulate Tolkien. Lord of the Rings of course is divided into multiple books within each volume, for reasons mostly relating to Tolkien being a giant nerd. But then most times I’ve seen Book [X] in other fiction its just in place of calling it “Part [X]”, and feels like it’s mostly a stylistic thing. I can’t think of any examples where it’s used as a higher classification order with like book > has parts > has chapters.

  5. Robin

    Regarding Terry Pratchett’s absurd chapter headings: he’s copying an old way of labelling chapters where you did begin with a very quick, almost bullet point preview of what’s going to happen in the chapter. It’s a choice made specifically for the Moist Von Lipwig books. I’ve never been quite sure why he chose to do something like that for those, but he was a god of literature, so it must be right.
    https://www.google.ca/amp/ask.metafilter.com/6146/Victorian-Chapter-Headings/amp

  6. A Perspiring Writer

    There’s a transcript here now.

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