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David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—How Long Is a Chapter?

Over the past few years, the standard length of chapters has been shrinking in many genres.
KamiMMcArthur
7/1/2013
David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—How Long Is a Chapter?


Over the past few years, the standard length of chapters has been shrinking in many genres. If you picked up a novel thirty years ago, twenty manuscript pages seemed to be pretty standard. If you picked up a thriller five years ago, ten pages would do. Now, for most thrillers and young adult novels, eight pages seems to be more normal.


In fact, if you look at James Patterson’s Maximum Ride, I don’t see any chapters that are over about four pages.


Now, I understand why this was done. Patterson recognized that young readers who watch television and play videogames are taught to take their stories in “bites.” Just as television and radio hosts want you to speak in pithy “sound bites,” modern audiences are looking for the same experience in their stories.


There used to be a time—a hundred years ago--when books were considered a “relaxing” medium. Thus, the opening of a story could take many pages before you reached the “inciting incident,” that moment when a major conflict was introduced and the story took off. When I read Lord of the Rings as a teen, I was a bit troubled by the fact that it took some 92 pages before I felt that the story took off.


You can see the same pattern in many novels written back in the 19th century. It wasn’t a weakness in storytelling, by the way, it was just the fashion of that time. In a day when people were less traveled than now, the author was expected to take some time creating the world, introducing the characters, and so on.


Modern audiences, though, tend to demand instant gratification.


So, for example, if you’re watching a television episode, the inciting incident now is expected to take place before the first commercial break here in America—within the first 120 seconds.


What does this mean for writers? Well, as novelists, we seem to be following the fad.


Given this, what advice would I give you on how to break a chapter? Here are a few points:


1) Avoid “completion.” When you’re young and you’re taught to write research papers, you’re told that every paragraph should sum up a thought, every section to a paper should be complete and whole, and each section should encapsulate your argument.


But that’s a death knell for a writer. If you’ve got a conflict in your story, your goal isn’t to resolve it right away. You don’t want your lovers to get together and live happily ever after in chapter one. You don’t want readers to know how a fight ended. You don’t want the readers to see who won an argument, and so on. So in each chapter, you try to end with something of a cliffhanger, a sentence with a hook in it that keeps your audience reading.


2) Similarly, just as you end a scene with a hook to keep the reader going, you should begin the next scene with a hook. In short, you never give your reader a good place to stop reading.


3) Just as a writer is taught to alternate the length of his or her sentences so that readers don’t get bored, and just as you’re taught that paragraphs should vary in lengths, I think that it’s good to recognize that chapters should vary in length. Can a chapter be one sentence long? Sure, why not? Can a chapter be eighty pages long? If it needs to be. Give the scene its due.


4) Beyond that, there are some conventions. In most genres, it is common, to start a new chapter each time that you switch viewpoint. I violated that a few books ago, and found that a number of readers were very confused to see viewpoints switching mid-chapter.


In the same way, we often start a new chapter when we move locations. I find that when writing for middle-grade audiences, younger readers often find it confusing if we move locations between scenes, so they tend to like chapter breaks for moves.


We often start a new chapter if we move forward or backward in time.


So those are some basic guidelines for creating chapters: start a new chapter when you switch viewpoint character, time, or place. Try to leave the chapter without resolving important issues, and make sure that you leave the tale with a hook and then start the next chapter with a hook.

2 Comments

MorganB
7/1/2013
10:22 AM
Ahhh...instant gratification, that satisfying yet short-lived reward for every impatient person who never seems to have enough time. Art truly imitates life when authors shrink their stories into smaller, more concentrated formats so people can still get their fix of literature in every day. But I've never read a short story or piece of flash fiction that made me question life or inspire some big dream. For me, that depth of thought only comes by completely immersing myself in a vibrant, well-told, saga-length novel like Lord of the Rings. Good Kick, David!
Kiian
7/2/2013
8:07 PM
I don't think it is short attention spans as much as love of reading. I like to read continuously and appreciate small chunks. 40 years ago I read War and Peace in the breaks between classes at my high school. This was possible because the book is a succession of very short segments, 4-5 pages. Now I'm rereading it in the long waiting times at red lights, bank lines, doctor appointment. Never a complete chapter, but lots of little chunks with complete breaks.

Too bad Tolstoy had to accommodate his writing to an audience demanding instant gratification and couldn't stretch out to tell a sweeping epic story.

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