STRUCTURAL UNITS OF FICTION WRITING
by Mike Klaassen
I've studied dozens of books about the craft of writing fiction, and I've noticed that much of the information is inconsistent, incomplete, and inadequately organized. One subject that needs to be clarified is the structural units of fiction writing, the format for constructing fiction from individual words to a complete novel.
No doubt you are familiar with much of the terminology, from individual words to paragraphs to chapters. But there is quite a bit more. Let's break it down from beginning to end.
The smallest units of writing are words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs. Duh! But what do you call two or more paragraphs with some common purpose? For lack of a better term, we generally refer to such "chunks" of writing as passages or segments of writing.
A chapter is a segment of writing delineated by chapter breaks. We create chapter breaks by inserting a page break at the end of a chapter and by starting the next page with a chapter title partway down the page. Two specialized types of chapters are (1) the prologue and (2) the epilogue. A chapter may include one or more sections, passages separated by section breaks. In manuscript format, a section break is marked with a blank line. In printed novels a section may be delineated with a blank line, a bar, or another symbol, such as a squiggly line. Some novels, especially long ones, may be further divided into books or parts, each including two or more chapters.
Where do scenes and sequels fit as structural units of fiction writing? A scene is a passage of writing in which the character attempts to achieve a goal. A sequel is a passage of writing in which the character reacts reflectively to the previous scene. Scenes and sequels are specialized passages of writing, i.e., scenes and sequels are subsets of the units we call passages of writing. Flashbacks and flash-forwards are two specialized types of scenes. Each of these units has a role. As writers we need to recognize each, know its purpose, and how to use it to construct our story. A chapter may include one or more scenes and/or one or more sequels. A chapter may also include fragments of scenes and sequels, i.e., incomplete scenes and sequels. Chapters often end at the conclusion of a scene or a sequel, but they don't have to.
For example, a new scene may begin at the end of a chapter, and then continue in the next chapter—or even later in the book. Consider a chapter in which a hiker stumbles off a trail and finds herself clutching a rocky ledge atop a precipice. Such an event would certainly create a new short-term goal for the character (avoiding a fall), which would mark the beginning of a new scene. When placed at the end of a chapter, such a scene fragment is referred to as a cliffhanger.
Michael John Klaassen
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The format for constructing fiction from words to complete novels includes a system of structural units: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, passages, segments, scenes, sequels, fragments, sections, chapters, books, and parts.