I was five years old when I was given my first non-illustrated book. I remember feeling slightly ripped off. How could I possibly understand what was going on with the characters if there were no illustrations?
I was sitting on a trampoline with my best friend, Ruth, who had also been given a book. I guess we were at some kind of end-of-year break-up party for something. I have no idea whose trampoline we were on, or why we were being given books.
“No pictures? Must be a grown up book.” said Ruth, “Though not too grown up because it doesn’t have chapters.”
I kid you not, these were the types of discussions we had. Ruth was a whole year older than me, and I regarded her as the fountain of all knowledge. It was Ruth who taught me all the important things in life, such as: in grade one you don’t get a nap time like in kindy.
So this particular afternoon on the trampoline, she showed me the book she had been given. She demonstrated that every few pages there were these gaps in the story with numbers. The mysterious chapters I’d heard adults speak of in hushed tones. Okay, maybe they weren’t hushed tones, but five-year-old me thought it was some big secret that grown-ups didn’t want us children to know about. Why were there numbers, and what function did they serve?
Over the years I have read plenty of chaptered books, and I can’t seem to answer that question even now that I have crossed over into the world of adults. Some books, like textbooks or memoirs, the chapter function is very clear–it indicates that you have moved onto a brand new topic, or a new passage of time.
In fiction, however, it appears to get a bit murky. Some writers use chapter breaks to indicate that the scene has ended and you have moved onto a different location, or time, or different characters. Other writers use chapters to give readers a good place to stop, should it be 2am and they have to front up to work the next day. I like these writers; they’ve saved me from insomnia on numerous occasions.
Then there is the writer who uses chapters like a cliff-hanger. They leave their poor characters dangling, forcing you to read on into the wee small hours of the morning. You feel a duty of care to these fictional characters, to not leave them stuck in some hideous situation, but the evil, manipulating author has used the cliff-hanger device on every single damn chapter, so you read on and on and before you know it you’ve stayed up until 5am and finished the book. And, if you’re anything like me, you immediately want to hunt down the writer of the book and yell at them for being so vindictive towards their characters, and for turning you into a sleep-deprived crazy woman. And I can’t help but feel slightly ripped off, once again.
Susanna Viles studied creative writing and journalism at the University of Queensland.
You can read more of her writing on susannaviles.wordpress.com.
She can also be found on Twitter (@SusannaViles)