Friday, April 9, 2010

Pizza Structure

My new book doesn't have chapters. It is divided, instead, into sections. Four of them, that I've planned so far. It has been an interesting thing, too, to work this way. I feel like I've suddenly been freed from a prison I didn't know existed around me.

Chapters - Blah!

Sections - Getting better

Scenes - YES

I believe structure plays a huge part in the way our creative brain churns out a story. With the three complete novels I have written so far, all have been split into chapters. I wrote within the confines of these chapters, and I allowed those confines to control how I treated POV, plot structure, scene structure, even how I ultimately shaped my characters. It feels like my books are split up into these little boxes, and that can be a good and a bad thing.

You can stack boxes into different shapes. After all, pixels are just little squares.

I know several writers who don't write within chapters at all. They just write and write and write until they have their 80 or 100,000 words, and then maybe they'll split the book up into chapters. Or leave it.

With this new work of mine, I feel freer. I'm writing the book by scenes, and each one can dramatically vary in length and it doesn't feel like an issue at all. When I write in chapters, I tend to slice the book up like a pizza, trying to get each slice the same size. It's my organized nature that does this, and so freeing myself of the pizza cutter altogether, I'm just picking off the toppings and piling them up on my plate, or maybe I'll just cut the pizza in two, or just eat it all with a fork.

I think sometimes we let the structure of our writing get in the way of our writing. We think of pizza and one image comes to mind - a perfect circle cut into triangles. I've enjoyed experimenting lately, finding new ways to compose a narrative. It is thrilling to see what this does for my characters, how it shapes them different from if I was writing in a stricter structure. I'm literally trying to think outside the box, and even if in the end, the book still feels structured in the traditional manner, I'll know that it didn't begin that way.

How do you structure your WIPs as you begin them? Do you always stick with chapters? Do you think this restricts elements of your characters and narrative?


  1. In the past, I always wrote in chapters, but then I took a novel-writing class online. The instructor said to write in scenes because they are modular and can be moved around in revision. It is very freeing to write that way, and I think it feels more natural, like something that is sprouting, growing, maturing. Thanks for bringing up this topic. I'll be interested to read the other comments.

  2. In my current WIP, I'm using traditional chapters. They help me structure action around each of my plot points and transition the focus among different characters.

    But I've read other books, especially those written in first person or third person but following one MC, that work well without chapters. It helps if there are breaks between scenes. But I also don't mind if some of the chunks are longer than others.

  3. Also, I'm finding myself writing scenes separated by breaks WITHIN my chapters. I think if my story took place within a shorter time frame and/or had fewer primary characters, the chapter breaks would become unnecessary.

  4. I outline in scenes, and my outlines do not include any chapter breaks. I don't have a strict policy for where / when I break for a new chapter...sometimes it's word count, sometimes a shift in time, sometimes moving to a POV for a different character (protag to antag, for example).

  5. I used to write in chapters. But then for my latest WIP I tried something new. I wrote draft 1 without chapters. And you're right! It was very freeing! There will eventually be chapters, but for now I'm not worrying about it. Not worrying at all!

  6. Short chapters, long chapters, and mid-length chapters - such is my writing process. In my latest WiP, I wrote short chapters. Normally, I write mid-length chapters. This last project, to me, was more freeing because the chapters were short and I moved quickly from scene to scene, i.e., chapter to chapter.

    I haven't tried the non-chapter thing, but perhaps that will work its way into my next writing endeavor.


  7. I wrote my last novel one chapter at a time. This go around, I wrote the entire first draft without worrying about chapter breaks. Now that I'm working on the second draft, I'm finding the natural places where chapter breaks should occur.

  8. I still write in chapters, but I've always plotted in scenes. The more I think about that, the more I realize I should just write (like you said) the 80,000 words and split it up later.

    I just wonder ... how I'll know where to stop for the day. :)

  9. I hadn't realized it until reading this post (hey, this post isn't filler, and it's Friday!) that my WIP is actually a sort of journey, and each of the five acts is an emotional/thematic stage in the journey, each of the chapters within the acts are physical/action stages of the same journey. Within the chapters are scenes to develop each physical/action stage. So I'm sort of writing from all three structural ideas at the same time, but the basic element is the scene and the most flexible part of the overall structure is the chaptering (if that's a word). I figure out each of the thematic sections and then come up with scenes to illustrate that in the physical world and those scenes sort of arrange themselves into chapters as I go along. Of course, all of it's flexible and might get knocked around a lot in the revisions. I have never tried for or cared about having chapters of equal length. Though books with mostly short chapters bother me; it's like the writer has ADD or something.

  10. Tricia: I'm surprised how many comments I have already that show me this is no new concept for most people! I'm slow!

    Genie: I think that's a good point about possibly not using chapters if your work is shorter to begin with. I think that's why I've been using just scenes and large sections for Cinders. It's a novella, and novellas generally do not use chapters.

    Rick: Sounds like you work with a different system for each work, which is the way to go, if you ask me. I have to remember to stay fluid with each work so that it can move in its own way.

    Valerie: That's awesome that you had such a good experience with that! That gets me even more excited to finish this draft and see how it all turns out.

    Scott: What is the word count for you for a mid-length chapter? If I do write in chapters, it's usually about 2 - 3k for each one.

    Michelle: Like I said above, I'm surprised how many people have already done this. I'm so behind! That's also really great that you find natural breaks to put chapters. I'm not sure that if I wrote a long novel that way if I would find them - or if they would land in the neat sections I'd like them to. I have to choose one or the other!

    Amy: Ah! Good point! That's how I usually stop for the day, is at the end of a chapter, or, since my chapters are usually just one scene, I try to write one scene a day. That doesn't happen all the time, though.

    Scott: I'm interested to know if you think Monarch's chapters are too short - because as I flip through and read that book, I feel like they aren't long at all. I often feel like movies with longer, more sustained scenes, work better overall. In my mind, I remember more of the movie, and it feels more solid to me.

    I think your description here for how you write is fantastic! It's wonderful that you have such a good grasp on how you put a novel together. I'm still trying to figure out what works best for me and how exactly my subconscious is guiding me.

  11. I don't write in chapters. I write one long, continuous story, kind of like a kindergartner: "Um, and then, like, she goes to the gym, and she sees these guys, and they're really funny, and then she goes home and cleans up, and then some guy leaves her a surprise! It's a big surprise! Yeah, a really big surprise!" Trust me, I clean it up later.

  12. I do a little of it all-- write without chapters and then divide, or write with chapters and let them carry some of the structure of my story. My current WIP has chapters and parts, but-- I'm not letting the chapters drive the length or content of the text. Some chapters might be three pages. Others might be twenty. I'm just letting it flow, and where it needs a break (which is determined by the story, not the other way around) I break it. Great post!

  13. Michelle: I mean books with chapters that are 600-1000 words long, just a page or so. Your chapters don't make me feel like I'm being rushed along and not allowed to look around and see what's to be seen.

    Although "As I Lay Dying" has some short chapters (and not just Vardaman's "My mother is a fish" chapter) but they all seem to be just the right length.

  14. I have written both with and without chapters. Not using them frees me to just let the story unfold. When I do that I go back and put in chapter divisions. For my own writing, I tend to like short chapters (1500-2000 words) but not always. Some chapters just need to be long. It depends on the work.

  15. For a long time, writing teachers would say something to the effect of, "The structure determines the story you're telling." This seemed so illogical to me, but now I absolutely buy this argument. So, I think structure does limit story writing, and because every story has some sort of structure, there's always that limit. As an example, when I first started Rooster, I didn't have any of the chapters that took place when my protag was a child. I was just writing the adult chapters. As my writing group kept asking more questions, I started to fill in more of my protag's past and that completely changed the structure. Then, once I had decided to alternate the chapters between the two timelines, I had to cut and create new information to fit that structure.

    Chapters can be limiting, but I'd say writing solely in scenes is another limitation. Not good or bad, but it just creates a different story. The freedom you feel, Michelle, is probably the fact that you're working in a different mode, and that's always exciting! I'm happy for you! I'm working on my novella too, as you know, and even though I'm using chapters and the similar POV to my novel, the shorter length is freeing and is making me think in a different way.

  16. Leave it to Michelle to ruin Filler Friday.


  17. Shelli: Hehehe, I'm sure you do clean it up, and beautifully, too!

    L.T.: It sounds like you have a good command over how your story unfolds, and that you don't let chapters get in your way. That's great!

    Scott: Oh, I forgot all about the mother fish chapter. Quite ingenious! And short.

    That's a good point about chapters around the 600-1000 word mark. Unfortunately, Cinders is like that, but I'm calling them "scenes" instead of chapters, and they are broken up with asterisks. I think it works for this story, though, with the kind of story it is. We'll see. It may be an ADD book for you. :)

    I enjoyed your long chapters in the Horatio book. I thought they worked well for the narrative and allowed your characterization to develop nicely.

    Lois: Cool that you've done that! I didn't know you worked that way. I think shorter chapters are great for YA. If they were super long, it could be a problem. In fact, that's a good post topic - chapter lengths for genre...

    Davin: It's still Filler Friday! Fill up on PIZZA!

    Excellent comment! I buy that concept, too, that structure determines the story. That's why I think it's very important to decide the structure ahead of time - or at least understand that the structure we decide to start with is going to determine how the story goes. It's an interesting concept, but it certainly makes sense. The foundation you lay for a house is going to determine what the inside looks like in the end.

  18. I start out with scenes - and while I loosely organize them four scenes to a chapter, I'm flexible. If more or less scenes are needed for a logical chapter break, I go with it when I'm drafting. I don't actually start out thinking about what scenes will go in what chapter - I just write the scenes, and insert a ch. break where it feels natural.

    Since I'm targeting a specific house/line with my books, I copy that structure in revisions. Four of my scenes equal about one chapter on average for the line I want to submit to, so I adjust my scenes and chapters accordingly.

  19. My first outline (and, really, only outline) is always into chapters. I'll give some sort of loose title if I can come up with one, or ignore it if I can't. Then the little bullet points are just where the chapter starts and where it ends. I try not to get hung up on length. If a chapter needs to keep going and going to cover everything I put in it in the original outline, then I let it go. (I had a chapter in my last WiP that was like 9000 words long but then ones that ended up as only two-three pages.)

    My first novel, though, just had a list of what needed to happen. Then I wrote it all. It was only after I found out that it wasn't short story length and it was in fact category length did I divide it into rough approximations of chapters.

    Neither of those books will ever be seen by human eyes again. I'm not sure what that says about my process or my writing.

  20. Jamie: That's interesting about targeting a specific house with your structure. I never thought of how that would affect my structure if I ever get published.

    Stephanie: Haha. What that says about your process of writing is that you are normal and a writer!

    Sounds like it is working for you and that you cut a lot. I do that, too, or used to. I'm finding the more I write the less fluff I put in initially.

  21. Very interesting post/idea. I actually recently read a book like this. It was only 3 or 4 "chapters" as they were labeled, but it was really more sections. It worked very well. And now I want pizza. Yum...

  22. Jennifer: Cool, do you remember what book it was?

  23. I wrote my rough draft as scenes...actually files. I'd write a file with about 1000-2000 words, and then start another file.
    On my revision, I've outlined all the scenes...but turns out I actually wrote chapters, because what I'm doing now is labeling things like 8.A, 8.B where 8 is the chapter and A,B are the scenes. And then I'm grouping 5-8 of these scene/chapters into...chapters. Well, actually files. So I'm back to files now of about 30-40 pages long (which is easier to handle in Word, but also makes ms-wide s/r harder).
    So long story short...I'm not really sure what the heck I'm doing at this at this point. Maybe I should start calling my chapter/files pizza slices instead.
    Is there such a thing as steampunk pizza?

  24. Andrew: You're the steampunk guru. Is there such a thing? I would think that might not be very digestible with all those moving parts - except maybe you mean it was cooked using steampunk methods of some sort? Hmmm...

    Interesting way to write your ms. I think a lot of people separate their sections or chapters into different documents. I keep it all in one file. It just seems easier that way.

  25. I never write in chapters, but eventually, I divide the book into sections, and then into smaller chapters.

    It is easier for me to write the first draft without the constraints of chapters...


  26. storyqueen: Glad to hear it works for you, too! I have yet to write a book with no kind of breaks at all. That would be a challenge!

  27. I tend to be very linear when expressing myself in any form. I organize in my head without even trying to before anything even hits scratch paper. This happens with academic things I write and with my fiction.
    However, it's just as well that I do this because I write almost entirely YA, and teenagers don't like anything very post-modern; they tend to prefer very traditional forms.
    Of course, what's right for me has nothing to do with what works for anyone else. I'm a big believer in individualism and creativity.

  28. I discovered your blog from writing a comment to Anne's. I hope you don't mind a wandering cyber-pilgrim droping by.

    When I think of any novel I am writing, I think CHAIN. I see the whole story, fuzzy of course. And then I see chapters as links to this chain. The scenes within each link comprise the metal framework of it, that help define it, that holds it together.

    I, too, loved Data the most in THE NEXT GENERATION. Like him, I sometimes puzzle and gnaw at does it mean to be human.

    If it is not rude asking, come check out my blog, WRITING IN THE CROSSHAIRS,

    I have been led to believe that it might be rude to add a link to my blog. If such is the case, please let me know so that I won't offend anyone.

    Have a healing Sunday, Roland {sometimes feeling all too much like Data.}

  29. Paperback: That's great that you can organize like that in your head. I tend to get lost until I map it all out. I believe in individualism and creativity because if we all worked and wrote the same, how boring. :)

    Roland: We don't mind you networking through the comments, as long as you are a reader who is genuinely interested in what we have to say here. I will check out your link, thank you. Data is simply fascinating!


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