Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Changing Face of the Humble Chapter

Twenty plus years ago books sported long chapters by today’s standards. They were often perfect mini stories with beginnings and ends. The end of a chapter was always a great place to put the book down.

These days things are a little different. For starters, there aren’t so many epic length novels unless they are historicals or written by a popular author. Stories often have a faster pace and the best ones have short chapters with cliff-hanger chapter endings.

While it’s not an absolute rule, I know I prefer the short chapters. I love a chapter that begins with a hook as intriguing as the first line of a novel and ends with a tease that compels me to read on.

Our task as writers is to make our novels difficult for our readers to put down. To do this, we need to understand these changes and embrace them.

How long are your chapters? How do you decide where to put in a chapter break? What’s your favourite page-turner?

HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY everyone!

29 comments:

  1. I used to make chapters complete scenes. Been restructuring for cliff hangers / page turners. I prefer reading short chapters and will break a chapter in my WIP if I think it's getting too long.

    I think short chapters keep the reader turning the pages. Which is the point.

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  2. as a translator and a reader, I also like short chapters, but I hope them getting shorter doesn't mean books are becoming something for short and quick usage, a disposable object ...

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  3. Interesting and thought provoking. Some writers can make long chapters enjoyable while others feel a bit of a slog, but snappy short chapters are rewarding too. I decided to make my WIP chapters about 2,000 words long each. Does that sound short or long to you? :O)

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  4. I'm awarding you a stylish blogger award,over at mine :O)

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  5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel had such loooooooong chapters!! I remember that cos I'd be on the train and needing to cut off mid-section as my train journey ended!!!

    Anyway!! I guess I don't really mind the length of a chapter in the book I'm reading but I do like ones that end in cliffhangers best!

    Take care
    x

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  6. M Pax, yep, I've been busy breaking everything up too.

    Dezzy, I think just because they are short doesn't mean they have to be throw-away. The best gifts come in small packages.

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  7. Madeleine, Thanks so much for the Stylish Blogging award! You are a doll :) I think 2k is a nice length for a chapter. It's when it starts to get in the 4k+ that it starts to become a drag. But like you said, it does depend on the writer.

    Old Kitty, hehe yeah I used to have the problem as well. Sometimes I'd get off the train and just sit at the station until I've finished the chapter (If I wasn't in a hurry)

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  8. Dividing up the chapters was the last thing I did for CassaStar. And they ended up being short. I think three - four of my chapters would fit into one chapter from LOTR.

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  9. Alex, lol you made me laugh. LotR does have long chapters. ;)

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  10. I'm rather OCD, so all of my chapters are around 5.5k, with 3-4 scenes each. I hate it when I start reading something, and there's no place to stop, and you've no way of knowing about how long you're going to be sitting there for the next chapter to be over. With my regular scene breaks and then chapter breaks, I think I'm doing pretty well letting my reader catch their breath if they feel like it, though I do end almost every section with tension of some kind. =) And that way, when/if I'm published, 'just one more chapter' allows the naughty children to stay up much later than their bedtimes. Mwahahaha. =)

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  11. I don't really notice the length if the book is flowing. If the story drags a chapter of one paragraph is way too long ;o)

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  12. I have chapters of roughly 10 pages; my belated worry is that the pace will begin to feel predictable or uniform, when they are almost ALL 10 pages!

    As far as where to put my chapter breaks: I plan them. Sometimes I know where I want to go at the beginning of the chapter and write until I get there with that end in mind. At other times, I'm writing away and get to about page 7. I stop and think hmm, now what can I do to make a good cliff-hangy or page-turny ending in about 3 more pages...? And how can I maximize the end of this chapter?

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  13. Amanda, with scene breaks in long chapters, it doesn't matter if it's a long chapter. It's only seems long when there is no break at all.

    Mary, hehe very good point!

    Carol, planning a chapter break is good way to approach it. It certainly makes it easier to write too.

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  14. I remember as a young writer being told chapters should be 20 pages long. I like shorter chapters and frequent scene breaks.

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  15. Depends on whether or not I run out of time to read something. Longer chapters are okay so long as my interest holds.

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  16. My first manuscript has long chapters, particularly in the beginning. But in the WIP I'm working on now, the chapters are short, short, short!

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  17. I read it somewhere that people no longer have time to take the scenic route, which means writers have to keep the reader moving right along.

    These days I like short chapters that leave me eager to move to the next one. My chapter breaks come when my characters are facing a crisis and at the point where it's important that they take some action or make a decision.

    Anything Jeffrey Archer makes me turn the pages. He's a great storyteller.

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  18. My chapters are generally 30-35 pages, but I've recently been told by two different BETAs that they need to be broken in half. I'm glad I followed their advice!

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  19. This is an interesting topic. I have some scenes that end with cliffhangers and when I look my scenes over, those are natural chapter breaks. As for the rest, I think I'll have to time it out. See when a break in mood or scenery is needed to keep the story moving.

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  20. jiminey! i never put much thought into it. i have a chapter break where it feels logical within the story. after a few scenes that fit together to move the story along. hmmm....

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  21. I have picked up on that too.

    Me? I have to strike a balance between cliffhangers and ending. See, I don't want people to skip parts of my book to find out what happens to a character...

    :-)

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  22. I'm a fan of the short chapter; 5 pages can sometimes be pushing it. In the current WIP, I break with a set-up of expectations - all of which must be shattered immediately. I like this method for this project because it's what the MC needs, but in other projects, its more a matter of 'get out early, but not too early.'
    Great Post.
    Patti

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  23. Short chapters tend to work on me better, but as I'm the kind of guy who will only stop reading at the end of a chapter, shorter chapters means more chance I'll stop reading sooner than usual, so finding a balance is hard.

    I like Terry Pratchett's view on chapters though; he doesn't put them in any of his Discworld adult novels because "life doesn't happen in chapters, so why should these stories?"

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  24. I like to read in bed, but it tends to send me to sleep. I also like to finish a chapter before I drop off, so short ones are the best!

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  25. Susan, that's quite precise. It's strange some of the things we were taught when we were younger

    Jeffrey, holding interest is definitely key

    Angela, excellent

    J L Campbell, I love that: we don't have time to take the scenic route. Lol. It's true. It's been a while since I've read any Jeffrey Archer.

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  26. Las Vegas, gotta love beta readers :)

    Kari, I recently read a book where the chapters didn't end "naturally" but it still worked because the tension was there.

    Aspiring, hehe, there's lots to think about when writing a novel. And many think anyone can write! Pfft!

    Misha, yes, for sure. It's good to break up the pattern too.

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  27. Patti, yes, absolutely! That's almost another topic entirely: where to end the scene. So many times we can end it earlier than we've written.

    Jamie, I like Terry Pratchett's out-of-the-box thinking. Not having any chapters in his Discworld books kinda suits them too.

    Wendy, hehe. When I read a page-turner in bed it means I don't turn out the light until late.

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  28. For a book I'm currently working on I am running between 4-5K just because of the style.

    Normally I go with what feels right. I try to keep it on even playing field. I love the chapters that have you willing to forgo eating just to finish.

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  29. Jen, they are the best kinda chapters... good for dieting ;)

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I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.