“That’s a…short, um, chapter.”
“I thought size didn’t matter.”
Size has been haunting me through the entire process of my current project of Black Sun. I found myself constantly questioning what the ideal length was to entice my audience and get through the action, without losing them. I was perpetually asking others, trying to find the length that would give the reader a sense of movement and accomplishment without chopping up the story. At the end of my search, my quest uncovered the maddening treasure of “there is no answer.” Like Bali Hai or Olympus, it’s not to be understood by us mere mortals.
Looking for models is also complicated. Great heroes of the speedy short chapter, like James Patterson and Dan Brown, have made an art form of breaking their work into chapters that are very often less than 5-6 pages. Great, okay, there’s a template. Then there are classics that have withstood the markets for years, like Tolkien and T.H. White, whose chapters almost never end. Back to square one. Who’s right? Which is the most marketable? Which are readers, agents and editors going to like best?
It does come down to a personal choice. Most of the advice I hear says chapters should be long enough to be:
- carry the story,
- end on a hook of some kind or
- be a logical break with point-of-view.
I’ve been trying to take this advice to heart. For me, my project begins with short chapters, cultivating a fast-moving rhythm. Understanding the readers are just getting engaged in the story, I want to make them feel the set up is moving quickly. Give them a sense of accomplishment in the story. Later chapters tend to get much longer. The readers have gotten far into the world are already interested and willing to read through much longer sequences.
However, in revising I discovered I’ve gone overboard in letting those midrange action chapters really grow in length. I discovered 10-12 pages (2500-300- words) for my early chapters switching to 35-42 pages (7000-9500 words) for my middle chapters. Needless to say, that difference is a bit extreme. I’ve decided I’ll continue revising my chapters as they are set up now. On my next pass through, I’ll add chapter length to my to do list. I plan on moving them to a master document then changing up chapter divisions to reflect all the above, but with more manageable breaks.
Step by step, the work is getting there. Thanks for hanging in there with me.