Tyrion 13:4

The third part of the series, following ‘Quakers in Spain’ and ‘Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan’. As with those two, an earlier and shorter version appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.


Most readers like formed stories; I have this taste to an unusual degree. I have never lost, or as the sophisticates would call it, ‘outgrown’ the taste for a well-turned plot that I drank in — not with my mother’s milk, for I was raised on cheap commercial substitutes — but at any rate with the oldest stratum of my father’s teaching, with the earliest books (after Dr. Seuss) that he gave me to read. A child is not subtle; a child likes stories to be marked by clear signposts, and would rather have five spoilers than one ambiguity.

Partly this is because a child has not formed a pattern of expectations about stories. Grown people dislike spoilers, I suspect, largely because they have read (or watched) so much fiction that they generally know what to expect: a real surprise, to them, is a rare and precious thing, and if you deprive them of one, you do them a real injury. Every turn in a story is a surprise to a child, and the suspense can become too hard to bear. It was a master-stroke when William Goldman, in the film version of The Princess Bride, had the grandfather interrupt his telling of the tale to reassure his grandson that Buttercup ‘does not get eaten by eels at this time’. To an experienced reader, any peril that threatens to kill off the heroine a third of the way through the book is an obvious bluff. A very young reader has to find out the hard way.

Nowadays, even the average six-year-old has imbibed enough stories, chiefly through the medium of television, to be wise to the obvious tricks; in sad consequence, even a six-year-old may be angry at spoilers. But there are less naked ways to signal the phases of a story, ways that can be made subtle enough (and misleading enough) to please the palate even of a very old and sophisticated reader. One of the best devices for this purpose is the chapter break, with or without a title.

Some readers profess to be indifferent to chapters in fiction, and some, I believe, honestly are. (Sherwood Smith has told me that she is one.) I have written elsewhere about the difference between analytic and immersive reading. Some people read so immersively that they sweep right past analytic details like chapter breaks. They are so entranced by the picture that they do not even notice the frame. But as Chesterton said, the frame is an integral part of the picture; the vision is no vision at all unless it is limited. The human eye and the human brain are not capable of seeing everything at once; we have to look at particular things in order to see anything. Chapters are framing devices; they signal to us, ‘Here is a particular vision; here is a thing for you to look at.’ A chapter does not stand alone, but it presents an object for separate consideration, and invites you to pause for thought, to integrate that object into your understanding of the whole subject, before you move on to the next bit. Selah.

This is obviously useful in non-fiction, and even the most immersive reader is liable to be flummoxed by (say) a fat reference manual with no chapters or table of contents. But it is useful in fiction as well; I would even say it is a minor art in itself. At any rate I think it is worth looking at some of the principal functions of chapters, and the ways they can be used effectively or badly. If you will bear with me, I shall deal with this matter in my own way: by telling a story about it.

Among the ancient Greeks, the fundamental unit of literature was the βιβλος or ‘book’, by which they meant a single papyrus or parchment scroll. These scrolls were mass-produced in more or less standard lengths; a regular-sized scroll held about 20,000 words in the handwriting of a trained scribe. Writing to this length became a standard skill expected of all authors. If you wanted to write something longer, you had to break it up into several books; and then, if you were at all clever, you made a virtue of necessity by taking up a different part of your subject in each book. You would divide your opus into as many topics as the number of books it would fill.

Often, though, you would find yourself dealing with topics too small for a 20,000-word book. In that case, you would put several topics together in one scroll, and to help your readers find their way, you would introduce each new topic with a heading. The word for heading is κεφάλαιος in Greek, capitulum in Latin, chapitre in Old French — hence the English word chapter.

This was useful for more things than just subdividing topics. There were no pages in a scroll, and no two copies were ever exactly alike; so the only good way to point to a specific passage in a book was to cite the chapter it occurred in. This ability was so spectacularly useful to scholars that they began putting chapter breaks into all their books, even those that dealt with one topic in an unbroken chunk of text. In such cases they would not trouble to name the chapters, but only number them, just as we number the pages in printed books. Often these arbitrary chapters were as short as a page in a printed book, or shorter; so you could give quite accurate citations by this method.

With the advent of printing, it became possible to use page numbers for this purpose, and by the twentieth century it was an academic faux pas to give references by anything but page number. But in the last few years we have come full circle: the mass-produced printed book, with the same text on page 43 of every copy, is slowly giving way to the electronic book, in which ‘page 43’ is defined on the fly by the amount of text that happens to fit on your particular screen in your preferred font size. Some learned publications are already falling back on chapter references for citations in recent books. Indeed, this has become the de facto standard in citing authors like Dickens or Tolkien. Their books have been reprinted in so many different editions that references by page number are virtually useless. You can say the same of ebooks, with the ‘virtually’ left out.

An ebook reader ordinarily saves your place in a book; even with printed books, you can use bookmarks or dog-ear the pages. But these methods are not infallible. Most recreational readers have no need to make citations to a text, but we have all had the experience of losing our place in a book. Numbered chapters are about the best tool ever invented for dealing with this difficulty. I think it safe to say that this is a basic function of chapters: if a book has chapters at all, we can reasonably expect them to do that much.

The other main function of chapters, referred to earlier, is to identify topics within a book. This is a plain necessity in most kinds of non-fiction; in fiction it is a luxury, but often a useful one. Chapter titles can help the story along by building expectations, like ‘Slavery and Escape’, from Robinson Crusoe. They can help to set a mood, like ‘The Shadow of the Past’, from The Lord of the Rings. A real virtuoso like Dickens can even use fictitious chapter titles to give us the feeling of having read an entirely imaginary book. This is from chapter 6 of Our Mutual Friend:

‘This, sir,’ replied Silas, adjusting his spectacles, and referring to the title-page, ‘is Merryweather’s Lives and Anecdotes of Misers. Mr Venus, would you make yourself useful and draw the candles a little nearer, sir?’ This to have a special opportunity of bestowing a stare upon his comrade.

‘Which of ’em have you got in that lot?’ asked Mr Boffin. ‘Can you find out pretty easy?’

‘Well, sir,’ replied Silas, turning to the table of contents and slowly fluttering the leaves of the book, ‘I should say they must be pretty well all here, sir; here’s a large assortment, sir; my eye catches John Overs, sir, John Little, sir, Dick Jarrel, John Elwes, the Reverend Mr Jones of Blewbury, Vulture Hopkins, Daniel Dancer—’

‘Give us Dancer, Wegg,’ said Mr Boffin.

With another stare at his comrade, Silas sought and found the place.

‘Page a hundred and nine, Mr Boffin. Chapter eight. Contents of chapter, “His birth and estate. His garments and outward appearance. Miss Dancer and her feminine graces. The Miser’s Mansion. The finding of a treasure. The Story of the Mutton Pies. A Miser’s Idea of Death. Bob, the Miser’s cur. Griffiths and his Master. How to turn a penny. A substitute for a Fire. The Advantages of keeping a Snuff-box. The Miser dies without a Shirt. The Treasures of a Dunghill—” ’

‘Eh? What’s that?’ demanded Mr Boffin.

‘ “The Treasures,” sir,’ repeated Silas, reading very distinctly, ‘ “of a Dunghill.” ’

The best chapter titles at once set up our expectations and play with them; they are just misleading enough, or incomplete enough, or vague enough, to excite our curiosity without spoiling the surprise. Dickens knew this technique forwards and backwards, and ‘The Treasures of a Dunghill’ is, by this standard, a brilliant title for a chapter. The phrase is, on the face of it, an oxymoron; we trust that the author means something clever by it; but what? We read on all the more eagerly to find out, as we do after finding a clue in a mystery novel.

At their best, chapter titles can heighten tension in much the same way as prophecies. Indeed, the two techniques can be combined. Stephen R. Donaldson did just that in White Gold Wielder, the sixth Thomas Covenant book. Lord Foul, the villain, has prophesied that Covenant will freely and voluntarily give him his magic ring, the white gold of the title, to the ultimate ruin of the Land; and by this time we know that Lord Foul’s prophecies, as a rule, really do come true. It gives us a feeling of honest jeopardy, and ramps up the tension. As Covenant journeys towards his final confrontation with Foul, Donaldson heightens the sense of dread and fatality with chapter titles like ‘The Last Bourne’, ‘Enactors of Desecration’, and ‘No Other Way’. These little flourishes emphasize the mood without giving any clue how, or whether, Covenant can escape his prophesied doom and save the Land.

This is a difficult art, and it is not surprising that in a subsequent series, his space opera The Gap, Donaldson gave up and did without chapter titles altogether. Unfortunately, he flew to the opposite extreme, to the detriment of his work and the confusion of readers: he adopted a system that does not fulfil any of the usual purposes of chapters. This method has since caught on; George R. R. Martin made it famous (or infamous) in his monster epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin, it would seem, borrowed the device from Donaldson; Donaldson may have got it from Asimov, who used something like it in The Robots of Dawn; Dorothy L. Sayers did the same sort of thing in Five Red Herrings. Beyond that, the pedigree becomes obscure.

The system I am referring to is this: to introduce each chapter, not with a title or even a number, but simply with the name of the point of view character for that section of the text. The author simply slaps a name at the top of a fresh page, followed by that character’s inmost thoughts and experiences in gruelling detail, until it comes time to interrupt the story with a cliffhanger and go haring off after the next victim.

Now, this is not a bad idea in itself. It does take rather a lot of work to come up with titles like ‘The Treasures of a Dunghill’ or ‘The Shadow of the Past’, and still more to ensure that they help the story along without acting as spoilers. If it will ease a writer’s passage through this vale of tears to call his chapters ‘Tyrion’ or ‘Angus’ or ‘Daneel’, or even ‘Jim-Bob’ or ‘Hey, you!’, he can do it with my blessing. But Donaldson and Martin, especially Martin, use it in a confusing and self-defeating way.

To begin with, they don’t number their chapters. This is a serious offence against the reader, particularly in the size of the books in which they are doing it. If I am reading an 800-page doorstop, a task I do not routinely accomplish at a single sitting, I want a foolproof method of remembering my place in case the bookmark falls out between times. For this purpose, as I said above, chapter numbers are the perfect aide-mémoire. Chapter titles, without numbers, can be unhelpfully hard to find when the book (like most novels) has no table of contents.

When there are twenty-three chapters with the same name, and not even the dignity of a Roman numeral to tell t’other from which, Madness beckons from its twitchy horse and takes me for a gallop. I could fairly easily find my way back to Jon IV, or Jon X, or Jon CLXXVI, Dei gratia capitulum, but Messrs. D. & M. do not accord me even that exiguous courtesy. There is no way to tell one ‘Jon’ chapter from another at a glance. The only thing for it is to pick a likely-looking chapter at about the right place in the book, read a bit of it, and then cast backwards or forwards a chapter at a time until I find where I last left off. And that is not foolproof, for I often find the characters agonizing over the death of somebody who was alive and well when last I saw him, and wonder if I have missed a crucial stretch after all.

This brings me to the other defect of this method, which is not intrinsic to the method itself, but is so often associated with it that I wonder whether they are really separable. Authors, it seems, do not commonly name their chapters after their viewpoint characters unless those characters come in regiments and battalions. I once counted all the POV characters in A Song of Ice and Fire; I believe I lost count somewhere around three thousand, but my memory may be at fault. Probably it was more. The result of this is that a character’s story arc will be interrupted in mid-scene with a glorious cliffhanger, well worthy of the old Doctor Who at its cheesy best, and then nothing more will be heard of him for two or three hundred pages.

In the later books, Martin took to driving his characters in two sets abreast, so that some of the cliffhangers in the third volume are not taken up again until the fifth. There comes a point at which mere suspension of disbelief is no longer enough. What is wanted is suspension of memory, and it takes a steel cable of Verrazano-Narrows gauge to carry the load. It was this, more than any other fault (except the infamous ‘Red Wedding’), that caused me to give up on ASOIAF after three volumes.

Yet one seems to get very little meat out of this method, no matter how much the plotline of these books resembles something filmed in an abattoir. For once we have caught up with Pauline still in her peril of a thousand pages ago by our time, or two hours ago by hers, and see her suitably extricated, we are then obliged to sit down and listen while she soliloquizes about what all the other characters are doing, and where they are now, and whether they can be counted on to have done what they set out to do, and whether they are dead or only shamming.

There is a certain amount of this in many good books. The Lord of the Rings derives great poignancy from the constant uncertainty of Frodo’s position, as Aragorn and Gandalf and the rest strive superhumanly to perform heroic deeds that will be wasted if Sauron recovers the Ring. But there are only eight (surviving) members of the Quest, not eighty, and they do not all sit around between battles and wonder what all the other seventy-nine are up to. In both The Gap and ASOIAF, the enormously complicated plots are largely driven by groups and knots and claques of characters trying to second-guess each other, and generally getting it wrong.

There must be a better way to construct a five-volume novel, and there certainly are better ways to maintain narrative tension. But both Donaldson and Martin appear to have become inebriated with the exuberance of their own ingenuity, as well as their verbosity. Their books would be shorter, neater, and more effective if they could resist the temptation to chase up side-issues and minor characters in the same detail as the deeds of their principal heroes. They set out to be architects, but spend most of their time and skill carving gargoyles for their drains. The least they could do is have a table of contents, and put numbers on the gargoyles.


  1. To be sure, a writer who forgoes chapter breaks could point out that the framing device is that of the entire book, that not all works consist of a string of objects for separate consideration, that it may misrepresent the story to present it as such a string instead of a pellmell hurtling of events from the inciting incident to the denouement. . . .

    Which doesn’t help anyone relocate where he left off in the text, to be sure.

    • To be sure, a writer who forgoes chapter breaks could point out that the framing device is that of the entire book.

      And to such a writer, I would reply with Mark Twain’s famous observation that intellectual food, like all other kinds, is better taken with a spoon than with a shovel.

  2. Ah, the Gap series. Grindingly miserable for 3 books but it let up a bit near the end, if I remember. I wonder if Martin’s going to go the same way.

    Martin and Donaldson aren’t even the worst offenders here regarding chapter headings: Terry Pratchett stopped using chapters at all, quite a while ago. (It took me at least half a dozen Pratchett books to notice this, though…)

  3. Sherwood Smith says:

    It’s true, I don’t notice if a book has chapters or not. I guess that’s part and parcel of being primarily visually oriented–I remember a story in scenes, I can remember a book by where I saw a word on a page (I picture the actual page) but recollecting page numbers or chapter numbers? Impossible.

    • I myself notice chapters best when they have clever titles, because (as I said in the article) it helps to set the mood. In fact, my preferred method of outlining when I am writing a book is to jot down a list of chapter titles that will help me remember where I am going with the story, and alter them as I come up with better ideas. I have several unfinished projects of many years’ standing that I could finish even now, from the (projected) table of contents alone.

  4. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Chapters are useful to the immersive reader, because they allow one to come up for breath before plunging back into the book. Also, clever chapter titles and chapter-heading quotes or poems are fun; and chapter headings are sometimes accompanied by chapter illustrations.

    I’ve been nearly tearing out my hair making an ebook out of Beatus of Liebana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, because his Books are quite long, and I can’t draw so I can’t have the Storia illustrations to break it up. Sure, you have the Storia texts (and the modern footnotes), but that’s not the same.

    • Though the one I really remember the quotes on is Connie Willis’s Passage. All the rest of the quotes are the last records words of various famous people. One chapter has a quote by C. S. Lewis. Combined with the events of the chapter, it just hints that something in it is metaphorical appearance of — something I can’t explain without spoiling.

  5. Piglet says:

    I think Faulkner used the POV character name chapter titles in As I Lay Dying. I’m not sure whether I found that book harder to keep straight than A Feast for Crows, which I uncharacteristically abandoned mid-book. Too many subplots. Lol.

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