Chapter Length: What length is the RIGHT length?
It 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?