Monday, August 11, 2014

Chapter Length

This is something that I hear many people question. Also, given that reading the ACROSS THE UNIVERSE series by Beth Revis has had be experimenting with my own chapter lengths, I figured it's worth a short post.

A common question I hear is: "Is [x] words too long for a chapter?"

My answer is always: "I don't know."

The thing is, I can't know. Every book and every author is completely different. James Patterson has chapters that might only be a page long, Beth Revis has chapters that vary between one line/half a page, and a few pages. Then there's a more "typical" chapter length of 10-15 pages in a book, and some chapters that are fifty pages.

There is no right answer.

I always tell people to end the chapter where it feels right. That might mean you have one chapter that's 100 words and another that's 1,250. On default-when I write my chapters until they feel finished-my own chapters can vary between 2,500 words and 6,000 (yeah, I know that's long).

It wasn't that long ago, but remember the first paragraph of this post, when I said I was experimenting with chapter lengths? I currently have two documents with my current manuscript: the original, with the chapters that have a mean ("mean" meaning "average," not rude or violent, although I cannot say that for the actions and words of my characters) word count of around 3,500 words; the second is the one that I've titled "Chapter Experiment." Let me explain:

THE HOLLOW MEN is told from two perspectives: Moe, my thief, and Ronnie, my super-soldier. My default way of writing includes 1-4 perspective changes within a single chapter, but after reading ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis (told from two perspectives, in which every time she changes perspective, it's a new chapter), I decided to play around and see how THM would be different if I employed the same tactics.

Therefore, my "Chapter Experiment" involves every perspective change being a new chapter.

Truthfully, I have no clue if this will change anything, if I will like it better than the original, or if I'll absolutely hate it. Like I said, it's an "experiment." Something to keep in mind with your chapters and chapter length (and the main reason I decided to try out this alternate version) is the correlation between chapter length and the pacing of the novel.

You know how people tell you that short sentences speed up the pacing and suspense, and longer sentences provide a moment of relaxation for the reader? Short sentences basically equal fast, long sentences slow. It's the same thing with chapter length. When I read a book by James Patterson, for example, I feel like I get through them insanely quickly; part of that is the effect of short chapters that then increase the pacing of the novel, which tends to make you, the reader feel like you're reading faster.

So my experiment with chapter lengths in THM is me asking myself: "If I make the chapters shorter, so they only hold one perspective at a time, how will it affect the pacing?"

Of course, you might not have dual POV's in your novel, so your question might be different.

What I'm really trying to say: your chapters are yours, particularly when you're writing the first draft of your novel. Don't fret over them being too long or too short, just write the dang book and end a chapter wherever the heck you want: a cliffhanger, a major reveal, when your character is walking int he middle of a meadow filled with wildflowers all the colors of the rainbow. You can go back, later, and mess around with them (for example, I'm messing with mine because I'm almost done with the 2.5 draft of it, which I'm rounding to three).

If anything, just play around with it and see where it takes you (although if you've heard a warning about not giving a character literary whiplash, that's good, too. If you haven't, I'll try to remember to write about it next week?).

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Chapters too long? Too short? @Rae_Slater talks the weight that chapter lengths carry, and the fun of experimentation (Click to Tweet)

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