BLOG POST DCXL: TOO MUCH INFORMATION IN YOUR CHAPTER STARTS 11:19 am PST, TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2021 CE SAMMAMISH, WA “Come ye, all Authors and Hear, for Wisdom shall be granted upon thee by the hand of the Not At All Mighty that thou might Hearest.” —Lord Philus Athansusus, the 63rd Lord Viscount of the City of Citiphus in the Duchy of Blackriverwaterberg of the Kingdom of Forevermore, Part XVII, Chapter 24, paragraph 83 of the third volume of the Collected Writings of Lord Philus Athansusus, the 63rd Lord Viscount of the City of Citiphus in the Duchy of Blackriverwaterberg of the Kingdom of Forvermore (standard edition), published in the Year of the Publishing (Summer)

Figured out yet what this post is going to be about?

I get it. Chapter titles are fun. So are quotes from “in world” sources. And the exact time and date of the events of this chapter are of vital importance. There is no way your readers will ever begin to understand your story without all of this, or anyway, all but the parts that are there to provide lots of groovy extra “color” and show beyond a reasonable doubt that you’ve really put that worldbuilding work in to get your complicated calendar system all set and perfect.

Except maybe one of those things might be true, and even then, if you really actually do need your readers to understand a fraction of this stuff before your story makes sense, the problem isn’t your lack of mighty, robust chapter starts but the story itself.

I know, I went nuts in the example and no one actually does that—not that much, not that eggregiously. Okay, sure—mostly. But I do see books that are pretty damn close.

But yeah, you might be thinking, isn’t that kind of cool robust worldbuilding exactly why we read science fiction and fantasy in the first place? Doesn’t all that add to the experience?

I love cool robust worldbuilding—when it unfolds organically as part of the experience of a set of POV characters involved in an unfolding story. Reading an encyclopedia… not so much. But even then, hell, I’ve written world bibles and caompaign settings—I get it. That can be awesome, too. But in the case of the overly complex chapter start, what’s actually happening is you’re stopping your readers from staying in the story.

Everything you’ve done to raise the stakes, to craft rich and relatable characters, to build tension and suspense… all the good stuff… now comes to a complete stop so we (your readers) can be told a list of facts, and the result is that all that hard and good storytelling work is derailed and we have to work through why all this matters… Wait, what time was it when the last chapter ended? I need to flip back and see if time has passed. And is Lord Philus going to be a character? Did they meet him? I don’t remember him. How long ago was the Year of the Publishing? Is this an old book or a new one? Does that matter?

Good luck getting that reader back into the story.

Also, I have to come right out and say it, this sort of thing also provides most of the people you’re sending this to a quick out. Agents, editors, and readers alike might just take this sort of info pile-up as a sign that they don’t have to, or anyway, don’t want to, read further. So then, yeah, don’t do it!

Now, you know I don’t like to be negative. If I point out a problem I feel the need and responsibility to then offer a solution. And at the same time I don’t like to try to impose hard and fast rules any more than I like hard and fast rules being imposed on me. So in search of help, I pulled six published books off my shelf and took a look at what these authors did, which, at least in terms of chapter starts, got them published. I’ll start with a book I’m still reading now, the 1943 science fiction/horror classic Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak. Here chapters are not numbered and only begin with a dateline—but a very simple dateline: only the month and day. The book begins on September 13 and ends (no spoilers—I haven’t finished it yet!) on June 10. This works nicely since the text is written in the first person, as though it’s a scientist’s notes on an experiment, or his diary/journal. So here we see a minimal bit of information with a story purpose behind it: we’re reading Dr. Cory’s diary.

I am a William Gibson fan, so I pulled out my copy of his 2003 science fiction novel Pattern Recognition. Here chapters begin with an Arabic numeral and a short title. For example

15.

SINGUARITY

And that’s all. That’s fine, though I should warn you to craft your chapter titles carefully so they don’t become spoilers, like:

16.

NED GETS EXECUTED

Right?

A newer book, A Big Ship at the Edge of Universe by Alex White, has similar chapter starts but with the word chapter and the number spelled out, and, again, a simple chapter title:

Chapter Thirteen

Double Apex

And the publisher (Orbit) added a fun little graphic, too, which is swell. And the story continues right along.

Surely mega-best selling franchise authors can get away with the huge-ass chapter start, though, right? In his 2006 novel Lisey’s Story, mega-best selling author Stephen King employs a Roman numberal and a slightly longer, more complex title:

VII. Lisey and Scott

(Under the Yum-Yum Tree)

And then he further subdivides each chapter with Arabic numerals in place of scene breaks, which is a little Od School, but hell, first be Stephen King then do whatever the fuck you want.

One of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, begins chapters with an Arabic numeral and a quote from a real world source, which can be as short as:

8

Heaven and Earth are not humane.

—LAO TSE: V

…though some are much longer.

Another more recent book, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone, literally just has an Arabic numeral, centered, in larger type than the text:

32

This tells us we’re on the thirty-second chapter and anyway, on with the story. This is the default that, I think, works perfectly fine in 90% or more of novels.

Just looking at these random samples we can see a lot of variation in approach, which is great, but the point I’m hoping to make is that choices are being made in terms of which elements to use, if not just a number then maybe a second element, and that’s it.

On with the story!

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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