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Do You Prefer Shorter or Longer Chapters?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Laurence, Jul 21, 2018.

  1. Laurence

    Laurence Inkling

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    I know that typically chapters are shorter at the start and end of books and that there are various chapter length techniques to control pacing. In general though, do you tend to enjoy books with short or longer chapters?

    My current trilogy outline is currently broken up in to ~15 chapters per book. For the length I want (3 x The Hobbit?) I plan to put 7k+ words into each chapter. Do you think much more than this would send you to sleep?

    I don't particularly buy in to the whole plan-where-your-reader-can-go-to-sleep thing. I think reader's available reading time differs too much for that to matter.

    [​IMG]
    A screenshot from Analyzing Chapter Lengths in Fantasy Fiction.
     
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    Some authors don't use chapters at all. Terry Pratchett seemed to be averse to them and it didn't harm his ability to tell a story.
     
  3. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    I like to use the end of chapters as a stopping point, and because I personally have problems reading more than 30 or so pages in one sitting, I tend to appreciate smaller chapters. I would say I’m happiest with Michael Crichton-leveled chapters.

    However, it never really comes to play when deciding to read a book or not. If they have long chapters or none at all, I find other moments in the story to stop. So I think its really up to the writer’s style.
     
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  4. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    For the most part I believe a chapter should be as long as it needs to be... In Eve of Snows I did break one chapter into 2 at a natural break because it was absurd, LOL. But, I've also read chapters that long before. Think I ran from 1500-10, maybe 12K?

    As for when reading, I don't think I care. If I notice chapter lengths it's either A) a bad sign for my finishing the book or B) Something's come up and I need to do X. Typically, I notice chapter lengths when nothing that matters is going on... navel-gazing, travel montage, that sort of thing.

    An example to remain nameless, a "hot new release" in the UK I sampled yesterday the first chapter was too long by the time I hit page 3, LOL. I swear, all telling and not a lick of it was interesting. To paraphrase... rmmm... erotica? It ain't the size that matters, it's what you do with it, heh heh. So, worry about the chapter and the drama, not the length.

    EDIT: Actually I sampled the book #1 before the Hot New Release (which is on pre-order).
     
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  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    It all depends, like most things, heh.

    If I'm reading a book that uses multiple POVs in limited third, changing from chapter to chapter, I tend to like the chapters to be longer. But sometimes this backfires, because I spend so long with one POV character I like then, turning the page, I discover I'm going to be stuck with a POV character I don't particularly enjoy for a loooong chapter.

    Light comic adventure types of stories seem to work best with shorter chapters. But then, I can't recall off-hand such a tale written with long chapters.
     
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  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    You should stop worrying about this immediately. It will sort itself out, truly. Write the book.

    One of several reasons why I like Scrivener is how it makes it easy to write in scenes. That maps closely to how I work. My characters are in a room talking. They are hanging off a cliff. They are in a fight. Each is a scene. Is it a chapter? I don't care!

    Not at this point. All I want to do is get each scene written. Then we'll see. In the second draft I start gathering scenes. By the third draft I'm looking seriously at pacing. The story is largely told; any unwritten bits are clear in my mind and of limited scope, so I can make good judgments about where chapter breaks should happen.

    Once everything is put into chapters, then and only then do I take a look at length, and even then it's only at the outliers. Is there a chapter that's three times as long as any other? Can I find a place to break it. Of course! Similarly, is there a chapter that's only a couple of pages long? The poor darling may well be excised, but if it survives review, it might have to be tucked into the neighboring chapter. Or not. There's a role for the very short chapter, too.

    When planning a novel, I'm always putting it into acts and chapters. That helps in planning, but not in writing. It's a handy way to organize my scene files, but that's about it. Once I start writing, it's all in scenes, which I cut, expand, and move fairly often as the novel progresses. Length is never the issue. It's always what belongs with what, what belongs after or before what.
     
  7. I am fond of short chapters. The chapters in Red Nights average about 1,900 words.
     
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  8. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    My chapters usually end up being 4000-3000 words. I treat chapters as a plot-within-a-plot, so they're usually linear, focused on the buildup to one centerpiece scene. There's usually a very clear delineation between my chapters because each one is devoted to its own "big idea".
     
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  9. Laurence

    Laurence Inkling

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    Thanks for the advice everybody - sounds an awful lot like I’m worried about nothing (until later drafts).

    I have another question. Do you split your chapters in to scenes without changing the setting?
     
  10. Malik

    Malik Archmage

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    There's no correct answer to this. It's like asking, "How long is a piece of string?" The chapter is as long as it has to be to tell the story the way you want to tell it.

    Dragon's Trail
    and The New Magic are almost exactly the same length. They're within something like 2,000 words of each other, which is basically a rounding error with books of this length. I think they're something like 7 pages apart in length. I didn't design them that way; that's just how the stories shook out.

    Dragon's Trail has 13 chapters. The New Magic has 31. Again: same length of book.

    It all has to do with pacing, scene breaks, and the type of story of each book. Dragon's Trail happens over about 120 days, and I wanted to give a sense of the characters settling in and getting a bearing on their surroundings before I really ramped things up. Conversely, The New Magic happens over the span of 19 days, during which the world cartwheels out of control on Day One and the characters just try to hold on until the final scene; it's the first half of the second act, so things go wrong. To this end, I wanted The New Magic to read faster and to have a frenetic feel, to capture that feeling of so many things happening at once and time running out.

    While they're both fantasy, The New Magic is an action thriller, whereas Dragon's Trail is more of a geopolitical thriller. Action thrillers often have shorter chapters, especially toward the end when the clock is running down and things are really popping off. I've read thrillers that have chapters that are just a couple of sentences.

    So, it really comes down to knowing what kind of story you want to tell and studying the craft to the point where you can see how other authors have done what you want to do, and then adopting whatever parts of the craft that you feel best deliver your story and putting your own spin on them. But, that's what being an author is. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
     
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  11. Vaporo

    Vaporo Sage

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    All right, I don't mind what you guys have been characterizing as "short" chapters, nor to I mind particularly long chapters. However, I do take issue when there are numerous excessively short chapters. Like really, really short, 500-word or less chapters. They are just... annoying to me. I see this most often in YA books, so I guess the idea is that a YA audience has a short attention span and will get bored if the chapters are too long, but... Come on! Your chapters are basically just page numbers! A quarter of your them don't even take up a full page! Even with triple spaced text and a large font! Your book could have used half as much paper just by not starting a new page for every chapter! If you think your story is so boring that you have to split it up that much just to keep the reader's attention, maybe you should consider a rewrite.

    Anyways, that's my pet peeve for today.
     
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  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    I've never met that book... but yeah, I could see where it might annoy me.

     
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I have had that same impression, but mostly when scanning through excerpts on Amazon. There's that part of my mind telling me, "Why the hell do you spend so much time developing your chapters?!? Just spit them out in quick succession. These guys did it."

    So I suppose a little resentment is pinged in my psyche.

    I've never tried reading one of those however, so who knows? Maybe I'd like them.
     
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    In writing today I encountered an important point about chapter length. It should be obvious, but sometimes the obvious is worth stating.

    If I don't worry about chapter length, what should be my focus? Answer: the chapter break. It's not about how many words are in the chapter, it's about what happens in those sentences at the end of the chapter.

    Ideally, you want every chapter to end on the point of a knife. You want to give the reader every reason to read "just one more" chapter. The last thing you want to do is wrap things up at the end of a chapter. One thing I try to avoid as best I can is to end a chapter with the MC going to sleep. Even being knocked out isn't as dramatic as you might think. The tip-masters talk about starting a story in media res, but I say that's where chapters should end. In the middle of things.

    When you concentrate on that, you don't worry about word count. Here's an example, which is what sparked this post. My characters are at sea, more or less lost and running out of food. So they've rigged some crude fishing gear and they've just caught a couple of fish more readily than they'd expected. So everyone's in rather a jolly mood. The meal provides occasion for some conversation and character development. I definitely don't want to end the scene there, not with a resolution of tensions. So I kept going.

    One of their number says there's something big in the water. The others, still cheerful and with full bellies, say great. Let's catch some more!

    No, he replies. It's too big.

    End of chapter.

    I sketched all this (meaning some notes, some dialog and narrative fragments), so I don't have any idea as to word count, and it doesn't matter. That's where the chapter will end. I already know where it starts (fleeing in panic from a monster-infested island), so the chapter will be as long as it needs to be to get from A to B. As I said in a previous post, I'll start thinking about word count in the second or third draft of the whole novel.

    Short version: in your first draft, concentrate on chapter breaks.
     
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  15. Laurence

    Laurence Inkling

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    I absolutely agree that it's about saying what has to be said in that scene / chapter.

    The main reason I want to know what you guys think about chapter length is that my book is already outlined and will be 15 chapters, give or take a couple. I'm writing a trilogy and don't want the books lookin' skinny so just want to be sure that longer chapters (8k+) wouldn't be an issue for most readers.

    Thanks for reminding me not to have my character knocked out without consequences by the way. I just stumbled in to that classic error earlier today without realising until now.

    Do any of you break up your chapters in to smaller sections without physically changing scene?
     
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >Do any of you break up your chapters in to smaller sections without physically changing scene?

    I work in the opposite direction. I do plan in terms of chapters, but when I start writing, it's all about scenes. So, for example, my book opens with the MC on a train, worrying about being late. This lets me set a bit of context. She arrives at the station, gets off, and there's an exchange with a couple new characters. That makes two scenes, but not two chapters. Then it's through town to a hotel, where we meet another character and I finish setting up the general plot. That's two more scenes, one in the city and one at the hotel. Maybe all that becomes one chapter, maybe I cut the city part ... I don't know. At this stage I don't worry about it. Because each scene is in a separate file in Scrivener, I can easily move them between chapters.

    It's actually great not worrying about chapter structure at this point. The chapters exist mainly as a kind of outline, a way to impose some kind of sequence to the whole mess.

    But you asked specifically about changing the physical scene. There's a correlation, sure, but it's not absolute. I'll probably spend a couple of chapters in a gnome village, for example.

    I think fantasy might lend itself to chapter-per-setting simply because we are often narrating our characters from one place to another. I put this down to a coincidence of genre, but not significant enough to condition choices about scene and chapter.
     
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  17. Laurence

    Laurence Inkling

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    Thanks you've given me some confidence in how I'm going so far. I try not to use any hard and fast rules when it comes to writing.

    That's an interesting technique, perhaps on the next tril.
     
  18. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    A lot of the discomfort with deciding chapter length, for newer writers, probably arises from an uncertainty about personal style.

    For instance, two authors could write the same chapter, one that begins and ends in the same places and accomplishes what needed accomplishing in that chapter, but have chapters of wildly different lengths.

    How much description, what vocabulary, how much dialogue, how much exposition, pacing, and other questions relating to style and general storytelling habits influence the length.

    Edit: And so that I'm not coming across as a sage speaking from the mountain top....these questions still perturb me in my own writing, heh.
     
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  19. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    One author comes to mind: James Patterson.
     
  20. Vaporo

    Vaporo Sage

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    Yep. It's a few of his book that came to mind when I thought about this.
     
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