Chapter Length: What length is the RIGHT length?

On January 14, 2015, Posted by , In Writing, With 6 Comments

book-91058_640It might seem like on odd question, and one most people wouldn’t even consider when writing a book, but it a surprisingly important one.  Of course, this isn’t a first draft sort of consideration.  All you should be worrying about at that time is the story itself.  But in later drafts, you should seriously be considering it.

Are your chapter lengths too long?

Are they too short?

You might find this as a bit of a surprise, but frequently, the answer depends on the types of scenes you’re writing.  So, if your scenes are full of suspense, tension, and mystery, where the readers are on the edges of their seats, longer chapter lengths are just fine.  But if your story is going through a slow period, or maybe the entire story is a little slow to build, then you might want to reconsider how long your chapters and scenes are.

 

Why does it matter?

Did you know that the average person’s attention span is only about six minutes?  That means if you don’t somehow reset their attention in that six minute timespan, they’ll start to drift.

This has happened to me plenty of times as a reader.  I’m reading a story with a thirty page chapter.  There are no scene breaks.  After a while, I start checking to see how many pages I have left until a stopping point.  Eventually, I’ll just put the book down.  On rare occasions, I’ll never pick it back up again.

 

What to do?

To give a great example of what to do, look at New York Times Bestselling author James Patterson.  Many of his books have quite short chapters.  As an interesting benefit, his books tend to read very fast.  Even when I was not a very quick reader (It used to take me about three weeks or more to finish a book), it would take me a matter of days, maybe a week to finish one of his.

When the chapters are shorter, people tend to plow straight past breaking points, reading more during each sitting.  They are more likely to tell themselves “just one more,” instead of looking for the next stopping point.

 

Ending a Chapter

If you can, always leave your chapters with something that makes a person want to continue on.

Cliffhangers, cliffhangers, cliffhangers.

Yes, while at the end of a book, a cliffhanger makes you want to strangle the author, and possibly shove your eReader down his or her throat, at the end of a chapter, it is an author’s best friend.  There are a lot of ways of making a reader want to continue on.  Pretty much, if you leave out just enough information to make the reader curious, you’ve accomplished it.  It doesn’t have to be a cliffhanger.  It can simply be a bit of information that leaves a reader wanting to know how everything pieces together.  Anything.  Absolutely anything.

 

Is there such a thing as too short?

That, I’m not sure how to answer.  I’m not sure there is.  Things like prologues and epilogues can frequently be very short, even less than a page.  There should be enough going on that it progresses the story.  If it’s too short, I would be wondering if it really needs to be in there in the first place.

Really, as I said before, chapter length has much to do with the story and its pace.  If you find your story is moving slowly, consider shortening the chapters.  If it’s running too quickly, you might want to consider slowing it down by adding detail, emotion, even more scenes (I’ve had to do that before… a lot).

 

So, what do you think?  What techniques do you use to moderate your book’s pace and maintain the reader’s interest?

6 Comments so far:

  1. I have never read one of Patterson’s books. Just how short are his “quite short” chapters? Five pages? Two? I had the experience of reading a novel or two on Wattpad, and one of the byproducts of the “vote” system there is that the more chapters you have, the more opportunities you have to garner votes, so savvy writers will be sure to have short chapters.

    Another reason for it, perhaps, is that lots of people read those “chapters” on their phones while on the bus or whenever they have am minute, so longer chapters are sort of non-starters for them.

    For those reasons, short, 5-page chapters were quite common on Wattpad.

    • You’ve never heard of James Patterson? He holds the Guinness record for most #1 New York Times bestsellers.

      To give you an idea of chapter lengths, from the hardcover edition of 1st to Die:

      Prologue: 2 pages

      Book 1
      Chapter 1: 3 pages
      Chapter 2: 3 pages
      Chapter 3: 3 pages

      • No, I haven’t read his work, but I’m aware of his prominence in the industry and on the soapbox.
        But I’m a bit shocked at those tiny chapter lengths. Clearly, it is a powerful model of success, so writers ought to take note, but I wonder to what extent that technique might backfire with, say epic fantasy. Would such staccato chapters fit the epic form just as well as with a thriller, say, or would it jar with the expectations of epic fantasy readers?

        • Well, I personally have come to grow tired of Epic Fantasy. Every Epic Fantasy I’ve read recently seems to read exactly the same, feel exactly the same, with no real originality to make them stand out.

          That being said, it does depend on the story. And you can use scene breaks just as much as chapter breaks to break up the action. I was surprised by how short James Patterson’s chapters are. I don’t write such short chapters either. Also, even with genres like Epic Fantasy, you should ask yourself if you might just be burdening down your readers just a little too much.

          You should always ask yourself what do you NEED. What can you get rid of and still have a great story? What can you get rid of and have an even better story? Kill your darlings, and darlings don’t have to be characters.

          Epic Fantasies can be pretty bad about dragging the events on when they shouldn’t. I was at a seminar recently where Carole Barrowman talked about skipping right to the important bits. She called it leaping. Basically, there’s no reason to include details that a reader can logically fill in for themselves. You can remove a lot of meaningless words this way, and make your readers a lot happier.

          • Yes, I agree. As a writer, I use page breaks to “leap,” and as a reader I like to encounter them. They function like the cuts between scenes in a film: shift of POV, shift of time and place.

            If I have to stop reading, I’ll look for a page break for my stopping point, but I don’t LIKE to put the book mark there. It’s preferable to stopping in the middle of a scene, but it still feels like I left something hanging (and I have–chapters have a wholeness to them, or should), so I would much rather read to a chapter end. Just last night I had to stop at a page break, and it will gall me till I finish it tonight, as something unfinished and hanging.

            So I guess I’m with you on the short chapters being more suited to modern reader tastes and attention spans.

            When I posted my novel on Wattpad last year, I broke it into single-scene chapters by creating chapters at the page breaks. One thing it forced me to do was create cliffhangers at the end of each page break, which I think improved each scene, even when they went back to being parts of larger chapters. The Wattpad mini-chapters ended up being around 5 pages each, which made them easier to digest in a short amount of time.

            In the published version, however, I reverted to the original chapters, usually 12-15 pages each, with one or two page breaks each, because each stands as a thematic whole. Not sure I’ll die on that hill, but that was my decision for the first edition. 🙂

            • Very true, though I do like writing chapter breaks that have cliffhangers, making it really hard for the reader to stop there.

              It’s just a pity that people have become so focused on instant gratification. I know my issues, of course. I have dyslexia, probably ADHD, and with the amount of book review requests I get, I don’t have time to put up with stuff that drags on.

              And that’s an interesting way of managing Wattpad. I haven’t tried it that way, posting each chapter as only a single scene. Of course, some of my scenes can be rather short, and I would never torture my readers by only posting what equates to a one page essay. But it is a good way to optimize the system to your advantage.

Oh, you so know you want to...