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.