Chapter length

Here’s a post at Janet Reid’s website: Chapter length

This is a question-and-answer post, because that’s mostly what Janet does. The basic question: Do agents (implication: and editors) care about chapter length? Answer:

If you’re writing a high octane, page turning thriller, short chapters are a good tool for keeping up the momentum. If you’re writing atmospheric character driven suspense novels, you don’t want people on the edge of their seats, you want them reading more slowly and building dread. So, it all depends on what you’re writing.

I don’t count words in chapters when I’m considering a book for my list. It’s only if I feel whiplashed, or as if I’m inside a pinball machine, that I go back and assess whether the chapters are too short. …

This is place beta readers can be of help. But be careful what you ask. Not “are the chapters too short?” Rather: did you get confused? Did you feel rushed?  Ask how they feel about the book, not what needs to be fixed.

Two good points here:

A) Shorter chapters give increase the feeling that the book is fast-paced, longer chapters make the book feel slower-paced.

B) Don’t ask about chapter length. As about the feel of the book.

I learned the first point from my editor at Random House, because I was switching a book from Adult to YA and she said specifically, “Can you cut the chapter length to about ten pages in order to give the story a faster-paced feel?” Answer: Yes, and gosh, it’s nice to be asked to do something as easy as re-doing the chapter breaks.

Ever since, I’ve tried for chapters of about 20 pages for adult novels and about 10 pages for young adult. I’m not remotely obsessive about this, so ordinarily my chapters range from about 14 to about 26 pages. I mean, I just write along without worrying about this, and eventually I think, Hmm, how long has it been since the last chapter break? Then I back up and check the page number of the last chapter break, scan forward about twenty pages, and start looking for a place to put the next chapter break. Usually I find a place in that range somewhere.

Sometimes, of course, I have a great line that would make a fantastic chapter break, and then I may break there almost, but not quite, regardless of the length of the resulting chapters. But a lot of the time, I just look for a reasonable place to break the story and drop the chapter break into that place.

At the very end, I go through and take a look at how long each chapter is and sometimes move chapter breaks around.

Obviously it’s different if you’re writing a novel with multiple pov protagonists, switching from one character’s pov to another’s over and over. In that case, switching at chapter breaks is the obvious thing to do, and so you’re really asking yourself two questions: How fast a pace do you think you’d like, and how long do you think the reader should stay with one pov before switching? This second question is probably why I feel that twenty pages is about right. I strongly (STRONGLY) prefer to stay with one pov for at least twenty pages before switching. Otherwise, it’s hard for me to get engaged with any of the characters. I hate being jerked from character to character at top speed. That’s an individual preference, of course, but it’s a very strong individual preference, so that’s probably why I prefer chapters of that length. But I do make them shorter if I’m aiming to write a YA novel.

The second point is also good. Generally — not always, but generally — the author doesn’t want specific advice about the nuts and bolts. She wants to know how the novel feels to the reader.

I personally want to know: Does anything feel too slow? Do you ever start skimming, and where? Does anything — any sentence at all — ever seem repetitive? Do you ever feel rushed? Does everything make sense? Did you ever feel confused about what was going on and why? Do the relationships between the characters work for you? Does anything in those relationships — a moment or an element of any kind — feel jarring or wrong? Does anybody act of character? And, of course, the big one: Is the story satisfying? Almost the same thing: Is the ending satisfying?

When just reading for enjoyment, a lot of readers are too forgiving. I know I am. If I expect to like a novel, I’ll just read it, and if I feel that a sentence is confusing, I’ll think, Well, I guess I missed something, I’m sure this is fine. If I’m skimming, I just skim, and if it doesn’t happen very often, I may not even notice. Obviously big things bother me. I’m particularly likely to be peeved if the protagonist does something ridiculously impulsive or bone-headed — that’s not something I’ll miss — but I may very well hit a jarring note and think, Oh, well, I guess it works? This is what I mean by too forgiving. If something feels jarring to you, then it didn’t work, and it’s no good telling yourself — and the author — that it was okay. It wasn’t okay.

What a beta reader ought to do is notice those moments and stick a comment in the margin: Puzzled here. Why is she doing this? Doesn’t seem like something she would do. Or Skimming here — in fact, I skimmed through this whole chapter. Or, and this is very important, The ending feels too abrupt.

That last is particularly important because the ending of a novel is (a) just crucial for reader satisfaction, and (b) often hard to write. We can probably all think of titles where the book was great, but the author didn’t stick the landing. There’s hardly anything else worse. That can retroactively ruin the whole book. I mean, it doesn’t always, but if it’s bad enough, it can. The ending just has to be good, and it can be difficult for the author to know whether it’s as good as it should be.

A beta reader should therefore, ideally, be simultaneously immersed in the book AND consciously aware of her own reactions to sentences, paragraphs, scenes, plot elements, and relationships. I acknowledge that this is tricky. I’m in beta reader mode right now because I’m reading the last of Sherwood Smith’s Norsunder War books, so I was ready to see a comment like “Don’t ask if the chapters are too short — ask if the book feels rushed” and run with it.

I’m really enjoying this one, by the way. Lots of time spent with the points of view of the characters I like best, though some of the other characters I like best have so far been shorted. Ten million characters do make for a complicated story. I certainly do look forward very much to seeing the bad guys finally defeated after all this huge buildup!

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2 thoughts on “Chapter length”

  1. When getting advice from beta readers or others, remember they are probably right that there is a problem, less likely to have identified what it was, and still less likely to recommend the right cure.

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