Columbia University Professor Answers an Age-Old Question: Why do Novels have Chapters?

What’s the true history behind chapters? How did they come to be? And why are they needed? Professor Nicholas Dames answers this very question.

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Have you ever thought about why chapters exist in novels? Nicholas Dames, a professor at Columbia University, decided to embark on a literary journey to answer a drunken friend’s query, “Why do novels have chapters?” At first, he told ABC RN’s Late Night Live,

“I realized I hadn’t the faintest clue how to answer that question. It was one of those, ‘why is the sky blue’ questions.”

Professor Nicholas Dames, The Evolution of the Chapter – ABC Listen

In the years that followed, he continually returned to this question, which eventually led Dames to explore the history behind chapters. It was revealed how ancient editorial techniques became a universally recognized component of the literary arts.

Early Human History

In human history, texts weren’t divided into sections; words were stacked upon words. Professor Dames was able to find earlier chapters in text dating back to the second century BCE on a Roman tablet from Urbino. The tablet contained the contents of the new law.

Dames commented on how the law was segmented into brief titles, for earlier chapters were used to organize informational texts on topics specifically like law, medicine, or languages to identify what information the readers were looking for.

Old text revealing very closely aligned text.

Further into his research, Dames figured out how the written words had evolved. Up until the ninth century, written lines were continuous chains of letters with no breaks between the words. His research was able to reveal not only how chapters evolved but also in what ways humans segmented text. 

Creation of Chapters

To be able to add chapters, it was the responsibility of the editors. This chaptering” was called “capitulation, an ancient technique that extended into medieval Europe. Usually, a text of someone else’s would be divided into what made sense — an intellectual labor performed by scholars — Dames would describe.

Depending on the editor, a book would be divided into countless different ways. 

Picture of a bible verse within a Bible.

Professor Dames explains that the Bible was possibly the most visceral” chapter in the history of chapters within the Christian Gospels. The Gospels were written without chapters, but over the years — between the fourth and 13th century — they were divided up in many ways. Some were sectioned into extremely tiny chapters and others into larger ones.

It was a confusing practice, yet this changed in the 13th century. Theories arose as to why this happened. Unconfirmed, it was believed that Stephen Langston, who became Archbishop of Canterbury, came up with today’s gospel chapters around 1210–1220 AD. Another theory would be that chaptering emerged from a series of religious institutions in England. 

No matter, this part of history was to create chapters of a roughly equivalent size to ensure that each chapters made logical sense within the overall narrative, which became a key component in narratives as well. Despite the English philosopher, John Locke, not being a fan of “chaptering.”

Chapters Today

When the modern novel emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, chapters served as timing devices for a story’s rhythm. Dames says, “Authors made the decisions… to cut chapters short or sculpt them in certain ways.”

Notably, chapters became a place for authors to directly address the reader. Whether it was to have a break, bring the reader’s attention to something, or establish those awful temporary cliffhangers, chapters evolved overtime and continued to do so even in technology!

Original Netflix show: "Baby Reindeer."

Chapters cross over into various ways of storytelling, like television shows as displayed through episodes to reintroduce or provide filler content for the audience to see.

Dames concludes by saying, “Chapters are always going to be with us.” 

To answer the question: Why do novels have chapters? In short, it’s completely up to the authors.  

If you want to check out more history regarding literary fiction, click here

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