Chapters—The long and short of them
In my suspense novel, She’s Not There, I kept the chapters short, ranging from one page to five or six. As a result, the novel contains 123 chapters, along with a prologue and an epilogue. Too many?
I have to confess I originally modeled the book after James Patterson’s style. His chapters run from 2-5 pages long. Why so short? The popular answer is that today’s reader reads on the run, and short chapters make for a convenient break.
Interestingly, my critique group has chastened me for doing such short chapters, and in the novel I’m working on now, I’ve acquiesced to longer chapters, seldom using one that is less than five pages long.
But recently I received feedback from a reader who said she really appreciated the short chapters because a vision problem limits her reading time. Now I have to ask—if short chapters are convenient for many readers, are they annoying to the others?
1. Long chapters. Writing style and genre need to be taken into account. Unlike Patterson, many authors are reluctant to break up a scene in the middle of a chapter. Part of this consideration for chapter length is decided by knowing your target audience and what they enjoy reading. In general, genre novels have shorter chapters than their literary cousins, but there seems to be no hard and fast rule governing length.
2. Short chapters. Many readers prefer them. One thing to keep in mind, is if your manuscript is to be a print book, not just an eBook, short chapters will add to the length of the book, making it more costly to publish the print version. The first time I read one of Patterson’s books I remember thinking I was glad it was a library book. If I’d bought it I might have resented paying for all those blank pages between such short chapters.
3. Chapter beginnings. Keep in mind, especially if you’re writing short chapters, that today’s average reader doesn’t spend a lot of time reading during one sitting. So remember to start chapters with a reminder of where the reader left off if the opening is ambiguous.
4. Genre. I write suspense. I believe it’s safe to say the majority of suspense writers keep their chapters to what I’d call medium length, maybe in the eight to fifteen page range. Some author’s chapter length varies greatly, while others keep them all a rather consistent length. As a reader, I don’t really care, although I don’t like extremely long chapters.
5. Chapter endings. Traditionally, cliffhangers at the end of chapters have been recommended as the right way to end a chapter in the mystery/suspense genres. They are indeed tantalizing to the reader and encourage him to keep reading. Food for thought: if today’s reader prefers short chapters due to his busy lifestyle, will he be frustrated by constant chapter-ending cliffhangers?
Please take time to answer two questions: First, do you find reading short chapters annoying? And second, if you enjoy short chapters, do cliffhangers at the end of chapters frustrate you if your reading time is limited?
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Till next week,