Yesterday an e-mail came from a friend who is making her way through writing her first novel. She told me that while checking up on her chapter lengths, she found the following numbers:
Chapter 1 – 5200
Chapter 2 – 3600
Chapter 3 – 3600
Chapter 4 – 1870
Chapter 5 – 2200
She said she was torn between splitting chapter one in half or combining chapters 4 and 5. The former is what she chose to do, putting in the change at a natural scene break in the first chapter, giving her chapters of 2600, 2600, 3600, 3600, 1870, and 2200 words.
Then she asked me how I determine where to break chapters.
Since I work primarily in plot-driven works, I use what I guess could be called the dramatic arc method of determining the chapter break. That is, the break comes at a high point in the story, perhaps right before a climax of some kind. This has the happy effect of making readers want to continue reading, to start the next chapter even though in purely physical terms they have come to a good place to stop.
And it works. I have had people tell me that they stayed up all night finishing one of my books, or that they were late to work because they wanted to read just one more chapter, and that led to another chapter, then another, and another…
(Hint: if you want to stop reading one of my books, you’d better slide the bookmark in at the middle of a chapter. If you wait for the break, odds are long that I’m not going to give you the chance to put it down.)
Now my friend is writing a mystery, more of a procedural novel, so the idea of trying to end each chapter on some kind of a cliffhanger obviously isn’t going to work (it also wouldn’t settle well for, say, a romance, where the body count is substantially lower than a typical JCF novel). That still doesn’t mean she can’t stop her chapters at some kind of dramatic turning point in the story, whether it’s somebody getting off of a bus in a strange town or the end of a day that has been wearying and brutal. Not every chapter has to end on something momentous, but it should serve in some way as the lead-in to what is to come next.
This brings up a couple of other questions about chapters. Like, How long is a proper chapter? Should they all be the same length? What kind of order should you impose on a chapter?
The answer to the first is, a chapter is long enough to accomplish what you need to accomplish in that chapter. The way I write, which is longwinded, I frequently end up with more chapters than I originally planned.
Since I write so much by the seat of my pants, if I have a note like Ch. 9 – Walter goes to the convenience store to buy some beer and cheese, I may decide, while describing Walter’s walk, that something interesting happens to him on the walk. This stretches the chapter out to the point where he gets to the convenience store at what turns out to be the end of Chapter 9, meaning that 10 deals with his purchase.
Now I could just make chapter 9 one long chapter and take Walter all the way through the trip to the store, but if the chapter turns out to be really long, it might throw a monkey wrench into the pacing of the book. And if the mission to buy cheese is not the climax of the book, it probably shouldn’t be dragged out in an extraordinarily long chapter.
Being creatures of order, we tend to want to parcel our lives up into uniform pieces. This comes in handy when you’re writing chapters because making them a consistent length (mine tend to run 3-5000 words each) keeps control of the pacing of the book and puts a dramatic order on things, such as not over emphasizing the whole beer and cheese thing.
So that’s an argument for keeping chapters the same length. Only I didn’t follow that when I wrote the Angel’s Luck trilogy. I had mostly medium-sized and short chapters in those three books, and I can still quote a chapter from Precious Cargo from memory: In stasis, Peter Chiba slept without dreams.
So what’s the deal with having a one sentence long chapter?
It’s a trick I learned from Kurt Busiek when writing for the ill-fated Open Space project from Marvel Comics. KB taught me that the bigger the comics panel, the more it slowed time down, with time speeding up proportionately as the panels became smaller and smaller (Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns takes this to a masterful extreme by using what seems like dozens of panels on a page to represent TV screens, rocketing the reader at an awful pace toward an act of terrorism).
So… wouldn’t it stand to reason that a shorter chapter might move the pace of the book faster as well? It certainly worked for the trilogy, where I was jump cutting between groups of people doing their thing inside of extended action sequences. Now, I suppose I could have made the chapters long and just used scene breaks to pace the action – Tom Clancy is a master at doing just that – but it seemed to work better for me to break them as chapters while slamming the reader back and forth between teams of hard-boiled mercenaries. Which method was right? Either one.
Are there other ways of imposing order on chapters? Certainly. And these imposers might just help you in timing your dramatic arcs if you’re having a problem fitting them where they need to be.
For example, as I got deeper into writing A Death of Honor, an interesting order imposed itself on the chapters. I didn’t realize it at first, but after 5 or 6 chapters, it occurred to me that the book would work incredibly well if each one was half a day in the protagonist’s life. So I gave you chapters titled “Friday Night,” “Saturday Morning,” “Saturday Night,” and so on.
A benefit of this kind of imposed order is that it can help you build suspense (if you’re writing a suspense kind of novel) by reminding your readers of an impending deadline.
For example, let’s say your book opens with a woman getting a phone call from kidnappers saying that she has 36 hours to fork over ransom money or her beloved poodle will be horribly killed. Instead of paying money she can’t raise, she draws on her experience as a telephone solicitor to track the scum down and get her dog back. Why not structure it so each chapter takes place in the space of one hour as the woman frantically works her way closer to the villains? Further, if each of your chapters comes in at 3,000 words and you throw in a chapter-length 37th hour for winding down, that gives you a manuscript that will run 111,000 words – not a bad length for a thriller of that sort.
So that’s the bird’s eye lowdown on chapters. Like everything else in writing, the rules are steadfastly XYZ unless those rules don’t serve your book. While each novel we write is essentially a first novel since we haven’t written it yet (H/T: Lawrence Block), what makes a first first novel so grueling is that these are the things you need to work out for the first time. Chances are, if you act in the best interests of moving the story ahead, you’ll be fine.
It’s a scary thought. But the rewards can be so worth it.
Just a simple storyteller
Troubadour on call whenever
The gods moved his heart to speech
He was something of a hero
To the conscience of the people
To the children on the beach
(via iTunes shuffle play)