What’s the point of a chapter? Within a the context of a novel, what should a chapter represent?
This particular question has been bugging me for a while now. Specifically, since it’s existence and need for existence was articulated best during a rather stunning example in the Wheel of Time: A Memory of Light. I say stunning and not in a good way. Rather randomly, Brian Sanderson incorporated a chapter that checks in at over 100 pages. Chapters within a book do not need to be 100 pages. Not unless that is the style that the book series or author—A Song of Ice and Fire, I’m looking at you—has defined for themselves. In the case of WoT, most chapters are a much more reasonable length, chronicling the view of a character in the story.
WoT is hardly the first or worst offender. Many YA books seem to randomly switch characters or narrative structures within chapters, leaving me confused as to if the author cares for the purpose of his chapters. The Secrets of the Immortal Nicolas Flamel is a horribly great example of random dissection of storyline into arbitrary chapters. Of course, the same could be said for the books in the series, so… whatever, there, I guess.
The definition of a chapter is simple. As stated by the Oxford English Dictionary:
A main division of a book, typically with a number or title.
Which brings me back my original question: what’s the point of a chapter?
Chapters can really be anything. Ideally, they should split a story into reasonable components that a reader can use to effectively break down a story. Chapters should, within the context of a story, function much like grammar in a sentence. The period in a paragraph, breaking up an idea and giving the reader a chance to pause and collect themselves. To process the information they’ve been given, digest it and move on. How often have we all picked up a book and wanted to read a chapter at a time, as a measurement of time and pacing?
If a chapter is placed without merit, it can easily break the flow of a story that the author has attempted to structure.
I suppose my science background is kicking around a bit here. Each chapter should have a purpose, a clear beginning and end that serve a greater purpose, as a clearly defined section of a greater narrative. Sometimes, I will grant you, that section may be longer than another, but not outrageously so.
What say you? What purpose should chapters serve? Where do they lead us when we read? Are they ever even good guides?