Saturday, April 21, 2012


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?

            Some considerations:

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?


Dear visitors,
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?
Thank you for visiting this blog. Here’s wishing you a healthy and happy week to come.
Till next week,
Marla

11 comments:

  1. I don't have a problem with short chapters as long as they are placed in keeping with the timing and flow of the novel. Deliberate cliffhangers do bother me, but as the pacing increases in the later half of the book, I feel an urge to keep going. It's that "oooo, gotta see what happens next" feeling.

    Nice blog post - thank you!

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    1. Glad you like it, Debra and thanks for visiting! Happy to hear I'm not the only one who likes short chapters. Me and millions of Patterson fans!
      I love a book too that can catch you up in it and make you want to keep reading. Have to start reading my Kindle collection now that I'm out of library books for the weekend.
      Take care. Happy writing and reading,
      Marla

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  2. Writer Dave here.
    I prefer short chapters. I get itchy when the chapter is too long!
    Moderate cliffhangers are good, they wet my appetite for more!
    In my novel, which I am finishing up, I have short chapters, 6-8 pages.
    But my book is a novella, only 130 pages long.

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    1. I think in a Novella, you should keep them short. And you're like me--I hate to stop reading in the middle of the chapter. (but the butt can get tired if on the "throne" too long! :) )

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  3. First, I too write adult suspense and my chaps do fall between 8-15 pages. I love ending on a cliffhanger as thats what I like to read...and then have to read thru a whole other chapter to get back to the cliffhanger one. They arent all action cliffhangers, some are emotional/psychological. I just finished a MG novel, adventure fantasy where I also ended on a cliffhanger each time - that led into the next chapter though. My 9 year old pilot reader (aka son) loves that big bang at the end of each chapt. I guess the bottom line is we write what we love to read, right? And we hope others will too. I like short chapters as i can finish one before I nod off at night.

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    1. I'm with you, Donna. And you're right, there is more than one kind of cliffhanger. Sometimes I like the subtle ones best! I'm in a support group
      of five writers and we all are writing mystery/suspense/thrillers right now.
      Great to get feedback from others in similar genres. Too bad you don't live here!
      Thanks for visiting my blog!
      Marla

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  5. Patricia AndersonApril 24, 2012 at 5:35 PM

    I think it depends on the content/genre and the individual reader. Long chapters can make a reader impatient, become distracted and lose interest, because the end of a chapter usually signifies closure of some kind. We don't necessarily want to see a cliffhanger at the end of EVERY chapter/scene. Shorter chapters allow the reader to take a breath, and think before proceeding. I like Patterson's short chapters. I think they contribute to the faster pace of a thriller. Short and quick. Long and slow for the leisurely read. Interesting subject.

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    1. Thanks for commenting Patricia!
      I like Patterson's chapters too. Usually reading on the go, whenever I can sneak in a little time. Nice to have you visit and make such thoughtful comments.
      Marla

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  6. I think there are probably two schools of thought. Yes, it's handy for the chapters to be short for the reason you outline and I have read most of JP's books except the most recent ones, but I find the constant 2-5 page chapters really frustrating. They are too short - almost dumbed down for today's reader. When a chapter changes,it's almostlike a new paragraph, rather than a proper chapter break. Likewise, reading literary fiction with no chapters (this I hate!) or forty page chapters can be a drag. For me, as a reader (not per se as a writer) 10-20 page chapters is perfect. It's also less important if you use an ebook, as you can even break at a scene change, and still remember exactly where you were, rather than wait for the chapter to end. Cliffhangers on over 100 chapters, I think you would lose emphasis on those points where you really did want to have a cliffhanger. How can you repeat that level of excitement 120 times. Excellent debate question btw. Sooz

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    1. Hi Sooz,
      Great feedback. Although I like JP's books (the ones in the suspense genre) I have to admit to occasionally being frustrated when a chapter break comes right in the middle of a scene.
      And 10-20 pages is a good mix for me, also. Agree on cliffhangers too, but then they don't have to be real dramatic.
      Thanks for your input!
      Marla

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