Wordslinger: Chapter Length … It Matters
I love to read short chapters, but I have only recently begun writing them. Like movies, I tend to string many scenes together and even switch POVs at my leisure. This may work in the movies but in a novel it can be confusing and, worse yet, annoying.
George Lucas and his film American Graffiti helped begin a movement in the film industry where multiple story lines were advanced at once and even intertwined. We as audience members have grown so accustomed to this fast pace that now even sit-coms have three different story arcs going at once. (I’m thinking of some of my favorite Seinfeld episodes).
When writing, I invite you to embrace the last bastion of intimate story telling; the chapter. A chapter can be as long as a novella and works for many authors, but it doesn’t have to be a series of separated scenes. Any single scene can be an island.
If you’re looking for a rule to follow, I submit that any change in POV or location should be strongly considered a good place to start a new chapter.
Worried about length? (And who isn’t)? Don’t be, I’ve read plenty of 400 word chapters and you know what it got me? A bigger sense of accomplishment.
However, in the interest of putting a figure on it, I’ll submit that a chapter that is 1 to 5 thousand words is a great target as well as a fairly consistent modern standard.
I try to keep web posts such as this one to about a thousand words because I know it’s long enough to be worth the time to explore any given topic, but not so long as to intimidate readers. Maybe it’s even because of my relationship with Bookish Temptations that my fiction has segmented into more bite sized morsels over that last two years. In that case, I say thank you, because it has the added bonus of making novels easier to edit.
It should be noted that my endorsement of short, poignant chapters in no way changes my sour views on a web fad known as “drabble” posts. I heartily maintain that purposefully dinky chapters (250 words or so), is seldom going to fully engage a reader no matter how much instant gratification it gives the writer.
Beginning with a thousand words is just a starting target and a great daily writing goal in addition. Keeping it under 5k allows the reader a chance to settle into your writing without subjecting them to a lengthy parade of characters and locations.
Side trips can be fun, but ultimately hurt your final product if they don’t directly serve the story. Just like in real life, too many side trips results in running out of gas before you get to your final destination.
I mostly write in a third person narrative and often dive down into the heads of many of my characters, but too much head hopping even confuses me later on. Separating these sections by making them their own chapters is greatly assisting my quest for clearly defined plot lines while giving me the freedom to even switch them around from time to time.
It takes guts, but chapters that have only one scene can be shuffled like drink coasters at the Elks Lodge. You never know what combinations can be unlocked by simply shuffling the order of events.
THIS IS SELDOM NECESSARY AND NOT A COMMON STEP IN THE EDITING PROCESS, But, it is eye-opening and has inspired both my wife and I. The changes we make usually stick.
Don’t you like to come up for air every ten to fifteen minutes when you read? I sure do, and I can’t believe I’ve subjected readers to colossal 15 to 22 thousand word chapters in my fan fiction days. If I re-edited those books, the chapters would quadruple.
Most of the advice I offer is pretty well vetted and tested but I want to acknowledge that there are countless examples of amazing books with chapters longer than a Dakota freight train and I don’t knock it one bit; I only suggest that current styles and preferences are leaning toward screenplay sized scenes.
Fortunately, that trend lends itself to clear and considerate writing and I am a fan of both. As a person who suffers from being a little too wordy, this is the kind of thing that keeps me in check and makes my stories tight and focused. (Again, a big help in editing).
I still encourage writers to follow those rabbits down their respective holes and let characters off their leashes once in a while. I just think it helps more to keep changes in points of view separate for the sake of simplicity alone.
Here’s hoping that you have twelve excellent chapters in the year 2014, and as usual, I’ll be here every first Saturday to lend my blurry perspective.