Sunday, July 17, 2011

Long Chapters vs. Short Chapters

I have this fight with myself all the time.  Should I strive for writing long, thirty page plus chapters, or should I let my chapters be short and sweet?  They're both legitimate stylistic choices.  It really depends on what you feel will work for your novel and what will appeal to your market.

There's really not a difference between them.  Any long chapter can be broken up into smaller chapters, and smaller chapters can be compressed into longer chapters with a bit of editing and tweaking.  I think longer chapters have a bit more literary bias towards them.  Remember college?  Remember British Literature or American Literature?  Or when you were assigned to read chapters 1-5 of such and such book only to find that chapters 1-5 were half the damn book?  Long chapters are associated with highbrow literature.  Jane Austen did not believe in short chapters.  She took you on a ride, and you were going to stay on that ride until she was good and ready to stop.

If you have a lot of time to spare, long chapters are fun.  You can lie down or sit in your favorite chair (mine is my blue papasan) and just read and read and read and not stop.  Or, if you're someone who doesn't mind stopping in the middle of a chapter to go do something else like cook dinner or take care of your dogs/cats/children, long chapters are also not much of a problem.  You can just put the book down - dog eared, bookmarked, or my personal favorite, the spine-breaker - and come back to it later.  No harm, no foul.

However, if you didn't like reading chapters 1-5 in college and found your attention wandering to other things - parties, food, the fifteen hundred other pages of text you needed to read for tomorrow's classes - or if you don't like leaving off in the middle of a chapter, then shorter chapters might be your thing.  Far from breaking up the flow of the writing, shorter chapters allow for breathing room and for you to follow at your own pace.  You aren't required to carve out a few hours to read one chapter; you can read for about half an hour or so and still get through a sizable chunk of story.

As a writer, shorter chapter can also allow you to get haste across to your readers.  Short, quick, chapters that change point of view can give a physical representation to the emotions of your story.  You don't want to confuse your readers with your word choice, but you can let them know that these particular scenes right here are hectic and confusing to the characters by pushing the pace and switching your characters around, as long as you make it obvious who's speaking or doing the actions.

All in all, it's really your decision, but just keep in mind your audience.  If you are looking to be like John Grisham, you might want to use shorter chapters.  If you are looking to be the next Jane Austen, then longer chapters are for you.  If you're unsure, talk to friends, beta readers, or if you're lucky, your editor.

12 comments:

  1. Although I can't write shorter chapters in the first draft, they fit my genre better. I write suspense, so I divide my longer chapters into smaller ones.
    Your reference to textbooks made me cringe. I remember thinking, "Oh, good! Only three chapters to read." Then I'd spend an entire week on the reading alone. I'm so glad those days are past.

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  2. Aren't we all. You think you're done, and then all of a sudden you've been reading for three hours and you still have thirty more pages to go.

    I tend to write longer chapters too before editing and parsing them down. Short chapters during first drafts make me nervous for some reason.

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  3. I can't speak from a writer's point of view, but as a reader I prefer shorter chapters. I think they keep the pace flowing nicely, and mean there's a convenient place to stop (within a few pages) whenever I need to go make a cup of tea, put the washing on, etc :) but you're right, each length has its advantages and works in different ways!

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  4. I agree. Shorter chapters are definitely a lot easier to handle as a reader. It's nice to have a break to go off and do something else. (:

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  5. Hi, Marlena,

    I try to keep the majority of my chapters no longer than 2,000 to 2,500 words, as I think it gives a sense of accomplishment to finish reading a chapter. Another reason I try to keep them on the shorter side is I want to end each chapter with something that compels the reader to turn the page. If I have shorter chapters, it helps me make certain I'm having enough "Oh, wow!" moments in my writing.

    A great question!

    Michelle

    P.S. I've left a response to your comment at http://michellefayard.blogspot.com/2011/07/50-pages-50-followersand-two-guest.html.

    M

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  6. When I first started writing, I was inclined to write longer chapters, except for my YA novels. Nowadays, I prefer short chapters that move quickly.

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  7. Hi Michelle.

    I agree with you too. Page-turner chapter endings are a great way to keep your book in the mind of the reader and to keep them coming back again and again. Wow moments are certainly a must.

    And thank you for the response!

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  8. Hi Joy! Thanks for stopping by!

    I'm slowly getting used to writing shorter chapters, mostly because I'm used to writing short stories with minimal breaks. But moving quickly is definitely a perk!

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  9. On the reading side, I tend to do a lot of different things in between books. Bite sized chapters mean I can drop in and drop out without breaking in the middle.

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  10. Yeah, it's like a quick commercial break to give you some breathing room.

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  11. I like shorter chapters. As a writer, It makes me feel as if I'm getting lots more done even if I'm not. LOL

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  12. It took me months, MONTHS to finally decide to go with short chapter. Dunno, i'm writing something that will be very long but somehow, twenty chapter felt like the perfect number. You know, it's like a weird thing that got stuck in my mind even if there was no real motive behind it.
    However, every chapter should have been 40 pages long and it's a nightmare, specially because i'm writing an omniscient narrator and there are like nine POVs. So short chapters allow me to change space and POV without putting like ten breaks every chapter. I don't know how i didn't see it before. I still miss the twenty chapter idea anyway lol

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