Category: Teaching

Notes on creative writing: How long should a chapter be?

The second in an occasional series of posts reflecting on bits and pieces I’ve learned teaching Creative Writing both previously at UEA and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and now, at City, University of London, where I run the MA/MFA Creative Writing, which is now recruiting for September 2021 entry.

How long should a chapter be?

This is a question I’ve been asked in class by novel-writing students, and it’s not a stupid question. Chapters are odd things, that we tend to take for granted, and that most of us won’t have thought properly about until we try to write one. Or, once we’ve started writing one, when we ask ourselves when we are supposed to stop.

The best way of thinking about chapters (like so much else in writing) will be to think of it from the reader’s point of view. A reader sees chapters first of all as way of measuring a book. A book is divided into chapters like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange is divided into segments. Eat one segment, and you might get an immediate sense of whether you will want to eat the whole thing in one go, or spread the pieces out. Chapters give a sense of scale, then, and also a sense of rhythm. Even though chapters aren’t necessarily all the same size, like Chocolate Orange segments, they will tend to be more or less the same.

Once upon a time, that decision – of how many chapters to ‘eat’ in one go – wasn’t left to the reader. In the Nineteenth Century, novels were usually serialised, published one chapter at a time in weekly or monthly periodicals, and only collected as a book once they were finished. (It wasn’t just commercial novels that were serialised. Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were originally published this way.)

This led to two results for novels: they tended to get longer, as writers padded out and extended storylines that were proving popular with readers; and novelists learned to end chapters on a cliff-hanger, an unresolved plot element that would not just make readers want to know what happened next, but would stick in their heads for the week or month until the next instalment.

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Notes on creative writing: using cinema as a model for writing prose fiction even though I’m not that big a fan of cinema

The first in an occasional series of posts reflecting on bits and pieces I’ve learned teaching Creative Writing both previously at UEA and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and now, at City, University of London, where I run the MA/MFA Creative Writing, which is now recruiting for September 2021 entry.

I teach how to write of prose fiction, as that’s what I write. I’ve never written for the screen, and don’t watch that much film or television. All the same, there are some instances in my teaching where I lean on cinema, rather than novels or stories, for examples and instruction. 

One of these is to do with plotting and plot arcs. I’ll write about that another time. The other is to do with writing scenes between characters, and specifically to do with handling dialogue. 

The fact I’ve already used the word scenes suggests that I’m thinking in visual terms. After all, in our ordinary life we don’t consider the stuff we do, and our interactions with other people, as scenes all. We’re too much in them to think of them like that. But, even with a first person narrator, it’s useful to think of interactions between characters in a written narrative as scenes – discrete elements, with a start and a finish, and a reason for being. 

The two ways that I think of film as a useful guide to writing prose scenes is firstly in terms of dialogue, and then in terms of pacing. Some creative writing students dislike dialogue, and can write whole scenes with none of it at all. For others it’s the best way into drafting. You imagine your characters talking to each other, and that helps you drive towards your planned plot development. It’s easier, in a way, to make a character say something than do something. There’s less at stake. 

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