More than a place--it's a writer's muse.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does Size Really Matter? Chapter Length in Novels (Cell Phone & Otherwise)

Okay, my copyedits are in front of me (arrived yesterday and are due back on 10/9). Between now and then I have several blog-related interviews and guest posts to do (I'll be over at author Jeri Smith-Ready's blog on Friday--you're all invited). But I'm good. Yep. *twitch* ;-)

The fact my copyedits just got here made me return to a question I had about chapter length in novels.

Because 13 TO LIFE began as a serial cell phone novel it was important to keep chapters brief and consumable. If you go and check it out (it's still posted on you'll see most "chapters" would (at most) amount to a single page of text in a standard novel.

When I was getting ready to send my more traditionally designed full manuscript back to my editor at St. Martin's Press, I wound up on the phone with him discussing chapter length. 13 TO LIFE is a YA paranormal romance. And...

  1. According to studies, our youth have a tremendously short attention span (one reason teachers are pushed to design multiple 15 minute sub-lesson plans in a standard classroom period).
  2. Most tv segments are between 10-15 minutes before a commercial break. In my opinion, they have an advantage over books as a story-telling venue.
  3. In a classroom a teacher can get your attention personally and there's always the threat of disciplinary action if you are unresponsive.
  4. On tv, it's action, action, action, or comedy or high drama--whatever it takes to hold you on the couch.
What about books? How do I, as an author, encourage readers to keep going? The obvious is: WRITE A GOOD STORY WITH COMPELLING CHARACTERS.

The less obvious? Understand your target audience's attention span and deal with it. My editor (whom I love ;-) said he thought my chapter breaks were fine. I asked if he minded if I shortened them. He (being quite agreeable and willing to consider options) said I could. I revisited my Textnovel version and tweaked my full accordingly. After he got the manuscript back he responded that he liked the changes I'd made.

Between the phone call discussing chapter length and the results I returned, I looked around online and considered other books I'd read. Which had flown? I immediately recalled one novel by Eloisa James (I know, I know, people have strong feelings about her--I'm on the fan side, so cope) in which she had each chapter be between 9-12 pages. I sailed through that novel and (although I noticed the size) I loved it because I sailed through it.

Here's a link to something Orson Scott Card (yes, controversial, too--again, I'm a fan of his writing) says about chapter length: essentially there are no rules and he uses shorter chapters at the beginning to build pace and lengthens part way through with the assumption the reader's invested by then.

I just finished reading SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater. It was very engaging, used the traditional romance ploy of switching POVs between the two YA love interests and had MANY chapters that are merely a single page (or a paragraph or three). If life didn't get in the way of reading I probably would have chewed through that novel in a day or two.

So, even if the size of the chapters doesn't necessarily mean a great deal, the long and the short of this post should be that you as the author must consider your target audience, their needs, desires and distractions. Yes, creative writing is an art. But there's a bunch of more scientific stuff that we should consider, too. ;-)

~Shannon Reinbold-Gee
Author of the 13 TO LIFE series (coming in June 2010 with St. Martin's Griffin)


Robin said...

You also state another factor in favor of short chapters. Life gets in the way. We all have plenty on our plate, and sometimes, all I have is 15 minutes to enjoy something for myself. Often, it is much, much less. I appreciate books that have a shorter chapter length, well paced drama and action, and have solid characters. So yeah, shorten the chapters for me. I'll be able to finish your book in the number of 5 minute moments in my life.

SarannaDeWylde said...

I like my chapters longer than 500 words, but I find that they tend to stay around 10 pages. I don't like to change POV in a chapter and I like to ge the story from all sides.

Also, like we'd talked about, you get to sharpen your hooks more often and keep your reader enthralled. I myself struggle with ADD and getting my attention and holding it takes something special.

I've said it before and I will say it again, I can't wait for 13 to Life to be released! I know it's going to be a treat.

And uh, heck yes, size matters. *grin* Biggest is not always best and smallest can be worth your time.

Gail Hart said...

Of course size matters! (Wicked grin!) But learning to break my story into 500 word chunks to fit the Textnovel format has been an interesting challenge, and I think has helped me to tighten my writing.

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