Take One Book, Finely Chopped

Since it’s a one-post thing and since I slept very late (the good news is I finished Through Fire, the bad news is I’m sleeping enough for at least three people) I thought I’d dispose of the length of chapters, today.

What length should a chapter be? Has several answers.

The first, flip answer, is the one you know I’m going to give “As long as it needs to be.”

And that answer is true, but…

There is more to it. How long a chapter is, is part of how it feels emotionally to the reader.

You might as well be asking me “Do I use simple, transparent language or poetic?” “Do I use present day dialect, or do I give my language a feel of Dumas?” Or “Do I show death on screen or just mention it?” Or “How much violence and sex should I write?”

All these are ingredients in the “potion” of the book.

What I mean by that is that if you are still thinking of a book as just a declarative thing “I tell you a story in words, so you know what happened” I’m going to come over to your house with a base– Okay, I’m not. I’m just a little raw from finishing the book. But I’m going to be pretty peeved, downgrade you and take away your gold star.

You are weaving a spell with your book. Your goal is to affect the reader’s emotions. Yes, even if you’re writing science fiction. Even if you’re writing hard science fiction.

If you just wanted to tell me about your cool engine, you could have done so in a monograph. But when you write a book you must have characters, and the characters must interest the readers enough to care what happens to them.

At the height of the art, you send the reader away having lived vicariously through the character so vividly that he’ll swear to you he fought the worm face aliens with Kit, was courted by Mr. Darcy, and definitely knows every alley in the Shadows, having walked it alert for the sound of the agony aunts behind. (I’m wondering now if I could take each element of the spell and write an how to book called “invoking the magic/how to make your reader live your fiction.”)

But at the very minimum, so I’ll continue reading, you’ll have to hook me enough to read to the end. Now there are books – even books my friends love; books with massive followings – that don’t pass that test for me. And sometimes that’s not the sign of an amateur. Sometimes the character is so real and so different from you that it’s like being at a party with astrophysicists. They’re all talking about their thing, and you just stand there holding your piece of cake, like an idiot.

But most of the time, when I couldn’t give a hang about the character or the events, neither can anyone else, which means something went very wrong in the mix.

And one of the things that can go wrong, a subtle and small one that the reader might not even identify but which will bug the living daylights out of him is chapter length.

Since no one talks about it much and it’s one of the favorite newby questions, I think each writer learned it on his/her own. I did. In my case, having learned literature from the other end, all I could remember was the recommendation for theater “a scene ends when a character leaves or comes in. An act ends when they change location.”

Being touched in the head, I decided that the scene was the equivalent of a chapter. This led to bizarre chapters that broke off when someone came into a room. Some of my early books would be 80k words and 100 chapters or more. So I thought, “Okay, a chapter is a scene.” That was…. Interesting. It’s closer to the answer I’m going to ultimately give you, but nota bene, not exactly. Often my characters stay in the same area for 1/3 the book, then shift wildly around the world in the next third. This led to a choppy, strange division.

You could of course pull a Pratchett in Discworld and avoid chapters altogether. I did it with the first edition of Draw One In The Dark, under the idea that then people couldn’t wait for the end of the chapter to stop reading. It worked, but my publisher asked me to do it differently for the second book, and to revise it for the second edition. They weren’t being arbitrary and more on that later.

What I use now is “unity of action” with dramatic break. On the way there, I used “unity of action” but treated it like a short story and ended with everything resolved. This is a bad idea. Too easy to put the book down and not come back.

What is unity of action?

Well, if I plot (not often these days d*mn it. I liked plotting. It was so safe) I usually jot down a line say “Zen breaks into palace to look for Simon” followed by another line “She sees Simon beheaded” “Wild run into night, meets with Johnny LaForce.”

These often coincide with changes in location, but not necessarily. Say for the opening of Darkship Revenge, it could go “Thena gives birth/explains why she thought it was a good idea to do this in space alone with Kit. There is a weird noise” “Kit goes to investigate the noise. Doesn’t come back. Thena naps (well, if you’ve given birth) but when she’s awake, picks up kid and drags self to piloting room.” “Ship is undamaged. Kit is missing. The Cathouse is adrift in powertrees. She has to get them out.”

And then it comes to the feel of the book. I think – I confess I haven’t checked – that my shifters books have longer chapters than my Darkship books. Shifters while they have action involve a lot of introspection, too, and also atmospheric setting in the little imaginary town of Goldport.

The Darkships I couldn’t describe too closely without putting my keyboard in my mouth. And it would have to wedge the foot out.

But the shifters also have, for lack of a better word, a more “romantic” (not in the sense of two by two, but in the sense of interesting locations and things that can’t happen) feel.

So the unit of action in Darkship Thieves tends to be chopped smaller, so that it gives a faster, bumpier feel to the books.

Because you can choose to chop those “units of action” either fine or coarse or barely chop them at all. Some, mostly travel books or biographies can be normal sized books with four to six chapters total. You know “How I grew up in a prosperous household and went to Sunday School like a good boy before I met a curious stranger at the harbor and was shanghaied aboard the good ship Merry Widow.”

Again, it comes to the “feel” you want to give the book. (This is one area in which it really is all about the feels.)

Having said that, I urge you to consider/favor small units of action, over large ones, for the same reason my publisher made me retrofit chapters into DOITD.

If people are reading these in ebook, it’s much simpler to move around the book/look for a favorite scene, if it has relatively small chapters, say of 1k to 2k words.

Another note is that as you near the climax of the book your chapters should get shorter. This is not a rule, per se. It’s what happens in my books thought, because my climax tends to be a crescendo of action. (The young man in the back, who sniggered, loses his gold star for the month.) And when writing action, particularly at the end of the book, when it’s interspersed with sudden realizations, each portion of a fight, say, can be a unit of action. One that ends with your character pinned down, while the next starts with him getting hold of the machine gun. Or one that ends with him figuring out the dragon is his brother in law, and starts with him saying the anti-brother-in-law spell.

It’s the same thing as your sentences usually get shorter and shorter in action. It produces the same effect of rushing and fast movement and packed action.

On a similar note, a lot of newbies ask “Can you have a one-sentence chapter?” The answer is “Sure. Who’s gonna stop you” but the real answer is “be very, very careful.” Yes, of course you can do it, but make sure that sentence packs the wallop of a kangaroo and also (usually) that it’s not the last chapter in the book. (And now I want to do just that, just for effect.)

IOW in this as in anything else, if you’re going to do something very out of the ordinary, make sure you have a good reason. It’s like “Could I go to work in a rabbit costume?” Well, sure, but there better be a d*mn good reason (like you’re the sign holder outside an Easter Buffet. Or it’s Halloween and your office has dress up day. Or–) because otherwise people are either going to doubt your sanity or think you’re pulling a joke on them. Or both.

Also remember not all your chapters need to be the same length. If you mean for something to linger stronger in the reader’s mind, make it its own separate chapter, even if it’s small. So you can have a half page chapter in the middle of ten page chapters. There is no rule. It’s all for the effect.

Your entire book is for the effect.

So, how long should your chapters be? As long as they need to be to emphasize and enhance the feeling you want the reader to have.

Now get out there and assemble that spell and happy writing.

 

34 Comments

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34 responses to “Take One Book, Finely Chopped

  1. Lawrence Block, in one of his fiction writing columns in Writer’s Digest magazine described his “apprenticeship” writing soft-core porn. The particular house he wrote for had very specific requirements on chapters. Each chapter had to be about X words long. (I forget the number. It’s been a lo-o-o-o-o-o-ng time.)

    He then went on to mention that in one of his books (one of his Chip Harrison mysters–I don’t remember which. Long time) he did a chapter that was one rather brief sentence long. Just because he could.

    • I really should get into reading him. My parents enjoyed his work (they thought him funny and entertaining) but I wasn’t into mysteries at the time.

      • His Bernie Rhoddenbar books were light and funny (as much as you can be with a murder mystery with the main character as the suspect). His Matt Scudder books were a lot more grim and gritty. The Chip Harrison books were on the lighter side.

        Overall, I prefer the Bernie Rhoddenbar books to the others, but that’s just my taste. AAYMMV.

  2. I generally shoot for a few thousand words per chapter, but it’s hardly hard and fast. But when I start getting into the 7k word region, I start thinking about splitting it up. And you forgot the most important part: whether or not to name your chapters! How could you?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      Name your chapters? What’s wrong with numbering your chapters? (Yes Sarah I know you have problems numbering your chapters. [Wink])

      Seriously, I’d think the “problem” with “naming” chapters is deciding “what description this chapter deserves” which is IMO the point of “naming” chapters.

      • You put in all in scare quotes like it’s not real, but some of us agonize over these things much more than we should. It’s important, dammit! (at least for me…)

    • For one of my old fanfics I insisted that each chapter have at least 8 pages in size 11 Times New Roman, single spaced… or was it 1.5? I can’t remember. Because of the series and the way that the site managed the chapters, I had to name the chapters. Yikes.

      These days I aim for at least 7 pages; the format I have to use looks at pages, not word count.

    • I name my chapters because I lose track of numbers.

  3. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    This article brought to mind what John Ringo did with _We Few_. After the prologue, he basically wrote the book as a single chapter as a joke and David Weber didn’t divide it into chapters. [Smile]

  4. When I wrote my first completed novel (since heavily rewritten and now sitting on A Certain Publisher’s desk having run the gauntlet of first and second and whatever readers and awaiting final word) I simply divided my story into “bite sized” chunks of about 5000 words (20 pgs in standard MS format) and found a dramatic point “about there” to break.

    Did much the same with Survival Test.

    Of my current projects Shiva’s Whisper is divided the same way, just shorter (about 15-16 pages between chapter breaks). Envoy2 and The Big Blue are not, at present, divided into chapters at all but that’s largely because they weren’t originally intended as novel length works. They just “grew”.

  5. Luke

    I had a gold star?
    It’s true, what the song says. “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘ til it’s gone.”

  6. Timid1

    Writing for the kids when they still had not quite outgrown bedtime stories, I had the practical goal of two chapters per night. This was both about the read aloud at one time and attention span before drifting off limit. This also meant that each chapter had to be a mini-story in it’s on right, even the cliff-hangers. There had to be a hook for interest; a conflict; resolution; the overall plot advance; and, ideally, the characters grow just a wee bit. In essence, each chapter was an episode of a longer over-all tale.

    This was an instance of a blind hog finding an acorn. I hadn’t a clue, and still pretty much don’t. But watching Finding Nemo (again and again and again – eye twitch), you can see the same thing, and, thinking back to books from Old Yeller, and Savage Sam to Huckleberry Finn,, there’s this same format.

    This could just be an artifact of stories that appeal to YA readers. Pratchett’s works, even YA books, are targeted toward readers more willing to read in a protracted setting. Yet speaking as a reader, chapters make a nice place to stop for an evening, or for lunch on a cold, rainy, day, or, well, for any reason at all.

  7. One-sentence last chapter? “And they lived happily ever after.”

    (Runs from carp, rotten fruit, and random incendiary devices)

  8. The idea of “unity of action” sounds similar to the rules on how to compose paragraphs: A paragraph is a group of sentences that combine to tell a single idea; a chapter is a group of paragraphs that combine to tell a coherent “part” of the story.

    There’s also the dramatic break: a blank line, or centered decorative wingdings (something like “—›–•–‹—” or “—»·›–•–‹·«—”), separating scenes within a chapter. The guidelines for these are necessarily going to be fuzzier. (And implementing them in EPUB is not so difficult, if your e-typographer knows his CSS.)

  9. First book, each chapter had about 80 pages because I divided it by cultural group. My advisor/editor said, “No one will put up with an 80 page chapter.” he had a point, since this was a non-fiction work.

    Earlier this week I started getting nervous because of two short chapters in the WIP. But they were as long as they needed to be, and they are “pause and take a breath” chapters as the screws are about to tighten and tighten hard. (Oh, perfidious Albion! Oh, the evil Americans!) Between ten and twenty pages seems to be a good length for my chapters, on average.

    I will confess to breaking once mid-scene just to pull a nasty cliff-hanger on my readers. 🙂

  10. Reziac

    As a reader, I don’t pay much attention to how long chapters are, and may not even notice if they exist. I’ve seen one-line chapters and whole-book chapters. Doesn’t matter so long as it isn’t annoying.

    As a writer, I don’t use chapters at all, tho one could make a case that since I use a Law & Order style header (date, location) when we change venues, those are “chapter titles”. In one book we tramp all over the galaxy; in another we stay put. How long is a chapter?? THAT long.

  11. Uncle Lar

    So, it’s all about pacing and flow, and chapter breaks are just another tool in an author’s kit, used to paint that perfect picture in the reader’s mind.

  12. I feel an idiot for not grokking this without prompting. I didn’t notice until you made the distinctions between scenes vs chapters that these ideas come from the theater. Scenes changes as characters change because that’s the unit with which actors memorize their lines and ready themselves to go on stage. And a chapter changes as locales change because that’s the unit with which stage hands change the props.

    The fact that print is a different medium means we can fudge these rules for scene/chapter division, but if we see our stories on the silver screen someone is going to unfudge them.

    • Draven

      Except, in writing, when the character walks from inside the building to outside, you don’t need a scene/chapter change like you do in film or theater.

  13. Random thoughts:
    ONE of the reasons I love Sabrina Chase’s books is that she can come up with the most WONDERFUL titles for her chapters. “More Lost Than Usual.” I LOVE that.
    I remember discovering (at about age 10 or 11) that the reason I was reading Tom Swift books until I fell asleep was that EVERY chapter ended with a cliff-hanger. That means you HAVE to read the beginning of the next chapter, and who can stop a bok mid-chapter? This is, I believe, not a good strategy. But, to be fair, I still have a couple of 1962 vintage Tom Swift books drifting around the house.
    In one (or more) of the Belisaurus series, in the paperback version, there is a series of one-paragraph chapters. I remember being aggravated by that when I encountered that in the early e-book format, but I don’t remember exactly why. Maybe it was because I couldn’t see all the chapters listed in the sidebar? Screen wouldn’t display but a single short chapter at a time? Don’t recall. The later ebook versions don’t give those little sections chapter status, though. The titles are left intact as subdivisions, but the mini-chapter divisions are gone.

    • Timid1

      I alternated cliff-hangers with calmer endings that, hopefully, piqued interest but without the same emotional imperative. But cliff-hanger or not, I resolved the main topic of the chapter prior to the next one, and not all cliff-hangers were as emotionally intense. I had the theory, right or wrong, that cliff-hanger after cliff hanger was emotionally tiring as well as predictable. Some endings was as much to ease tension as they were to keep from reading a third chapter.

      • Alan

        As another reader: Any gimmick used repeatedly without falling naturally from the plot action is predictable and feels contrived. Which is irritating – not to the book-against-the-wall point if the plot and characters are interesting, but definitely earns the author demerits.

  14. “On the way there, I used “unity of action” but treated it like a short story and ended with everything resolved. ”

    Yep. That’s the problem I’m working on right now, with my own stuff. I swear if I ever wrestle my way out of it, I’m going to go through everything I’ve ever written and change all the chapter transitions.

  15. Completely off topic – new Author Earnings report is out!