Thursday, February 08, 2007

Chapters


Monk in a scriptorium.
An illustration from The Romance of Writing by Keith Gordon Irwin.

I haven't checked older novels religiously but I have the indelible impression that book chapters at one time conformed to set and standard lengths - 10 pages or 20 pages, ie. X number of words.
Am just about finished a fantasy that flourishes about 148 chapters of variable length.
Noticed that Hamilton's Anita Blake's routinely comprise 40-50 chapters.
One can see how this makes sense.
In the first fantasy, for example, a sorceress and her entourage pursue evil minions and their overlords across an entire continent for several seasons. The mutiples of chapters indicate the passage of times and places without the necessity of a tedious timeline linkages of "five days later," and other obvious constraints that might be dictated by the arc and expanse of the novel.
Chapters focus on individual scenes in these narratives - not on a collection of related scenes. Such short chapters thus neatly avoid the limitations of readers' attention spans, may reflect cinematic influence, and serve to keep the action moving.
Chapter length has become - not an arbitrary form - but a tool.
A frequent let's-end-this-silly-discussion comment about chapter length is: Chapters are as long as they have to be.
While this aphorism sounds - and probably is intended to sound - wholly wise and profound, I have the niggling idea that it begs the question in some circular manner. But that may be just me.
And we don't all write erotica after all.
The question is not does chapter length serve and satisfy our artistic vision, but how can we use length to enhance the experience for the reader.

28 comments:

Erik Ivan James said...

I've been recently tossing this very topic around in my mind. Thank you for answering my questions to myself. Your answer being: "...how can we use length to enhance the experience for the reader."

That's it, that's the bottom line---enhance the experience for the reader.

Bonnie said...

I just stopped in from Bonnie Write site. Hello and God Bless You.

http://www.freewebs.com/friendsareagift

http://www.freewebs.com/friendsareagift2

Bailey Stewart said...

I've often struggled with "is this chapter long enough?" "Is this chapter too long?" You make a lot of sense. I'm not going to worry about it any more.

kmfrontain said...

I started out with chapters that were roughly 20 pages long, letter size, single spaced. Pretty hefty word count, up in the 10k range. Mostly I went for a completion of a certain story arc when I did them. There would be a number of little arcs worked in. It seemed comfortable and workable. Then I needed 2500 to 3000 word short chapters for Erotic Dreams, and now I seem to think in smaller story arcs. I guess I adjusted to the needs of the publisher in that case, but I like using the shorter ones better. It has forced me to see where I can pad and where I'm wasting time.

writtenwyrdd said...

My understanding and observation is that chapters serve a function. They are supposedly structured like stories in that they have a beginning, middle, and end. Now of course as in all things related to how to write, there are not absolutes; but the recommendation I have read over and over is to follow this structure and end with the reader wanting more. It makes sense to me to have a cliffhanger ending to a chapter.

What makes you decide to end a chapter, Bernita?

Bernita said...

Think the chapter length may be based on scene, on pov ( if there are mutiples), on time, or anything else, Erik.

Thank you, Bonnie Three. Nice of you to stop by.

Let it be organic, Bailey.

That's been much my experience, Karen - the longer arc - and I intend to chop it up.

Bernita said...

Writtem, think the cliff-hanger method is sometimes taken to extremes, but nevertheless is almost a necessity in certain types of fiction.
By extremes, I mean when it is too obvious a device. Sometimes the reader likes to catch their breath and have a few questions settled in their minds before the plot continues.
The overall arc of an interesting story will maintain suspense without a gasp at the end of each chapter.
All stories are not served well by having the gas pedal clear to the floor all the time.
I think I have varied the stops, but I intend to look at them more closely.
Time, I think, primarily.

Ric said...

It's two in the morning. Going to just finish this chapter and go to bed.

The chapter has to end in such a way that I will pick up the book tomorrow night. Can't be too pat. At this point, I need to be in love with the characters - if not, the cliffhanger better be there.

tis a thin line we traverse.

EA Monroe said...

Hi, Bernita. You bring up good points on chapters, especially since "chapters" are what I'm working on in my current wip. How I work my chapters comes down to a matter of "style, voice and structure," the demands of story, multiple povs, pacing, etc. -- to create an "experience" and brief escape for the reader.

Bernita said...

Do people tend to read to the end of a chapter, Ric?
Sometimes I stop just before what I expect is going to be a great scene.
Saving and savouring the anticipation until I have time to enjoy it.

You're clearly a pro, Elizabeth.
Some of us are just working on it.

Ric said...

Of course you read to the end of the chapter... that's where the author stopped for breath, should be a good spot for you to stop as well.

???

Bernita said...

Ric, sometimes I fall asleep in the middle of a paragraph, no matter how fascinating the tale.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I use chapters to give me a coffee break..LOL!

No, seriously, I use them to put the break in a scene, or a time change, or change of character.

And as for length...LOL...it's as long as it needs to be, but I have caught myself after 10 or 12 pages saying, "Where am I going with this?"

raine said...

...And we don't all write erotica after all.

You don't??! :-O

LOL--agree.
The chapter should be as long as it needs to be.
And agree about the shorter chapters appealing to our shorter attention spans--although I did notice that, when I was attempting a Victorian romance, my chapters insisted on being longer for some reason.

I've also been known to stop just before a climax (excuse the expression) or particularly yummy part of a story to save it for another time--chapter break or no.

Gabriele C. said...

I've never really thought about chapters. I just put a break where I feel I want/need one.

Time passing by uneventfully is one reason. Weaving plot strands another.

Bernita said...

"Where am I going with this?"
A necessary question especially in revision, Bonnie.
Possibly shorter chapters might help a writer focus more on internal elements?

Raine, I wonder if we unconsciously follow a pattern according to the type of story?

Me too, Gabriele.But I think I shall give the length of chapters a little more attention though.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Oh...LOL....I know the bonnie up there at the top...LOL...she's turned into a driveby blogger. *snort* talk about needing a fan.

LOL..I'm glad we weren't on a 'good' day...LOL...i'd ned to revive her with smelling salts!

Anyway...yes, I remember why I came back! You're right Bernita, chapter breaks help me to focus...like I should probably put a chapter break right about here!

But I wanted to tell ya'll...up the road from me...by about a 100 miles...as of this morning they have received 100 inches of snow!!! That's right...one hundred...it's been snowing at the rate of 5 inches an hour, with no let up in sight!

---chapter break---

raine said...

...Raine, I wonder if we unconsciously follow a pattern according to the type of story?

I had the same thought.

(Bonnie--ugh on the snow!).

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Raine, *sniff*...waaahhhh!! I want a blizzard...and we haven't gotten narry a flake!

Bernita said...

Thought of that, Bonnie. Good thing I was mild today.
100 inches is 8 FEET!

Most of my chapters run around 8,000 words, Raine. I think I have to chop.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Good counting Bernita! They had six feet by dawn this morning, and they're looking for that other two feet today.

It had been snowing at about 5 inches an hour, so they're pretty close now. All the roads are closed. The schools have been closed for four days...and it's a state of emergency *snort* ya' think!

Here's a link to the latest update

I want a blizzard!!! *sniff*

ORION said...

I don't worry about chapter length when I write my first draft. When I did my edits for my agent I machinated a bit and cut some chapters in half.
When I got the editorial letter from my editor I machinated even more. For my story very short chapters work. Sometimes even just 2 pages.
When I think of this I am always reminded of that scene in Big Chill where the Jeff Goldblum character talks about writing for People magazine.
He describes his articles as being no longer than the average person can read during the average crap.

Robyn said...

Oddly enough, I just read the newest release from a fave best-selling author. In this story, she has a couple of chapters that are exactly one page. For some reason, that irritated me. There was nothing on that one page that couldn't have been included elsewhere. I wondered if her editors called for a certain number of chapters, and this was her way of flipping them off.

spyscribbler said...

What a great discussion! I say hogwash to the "as long as it needs to be" cop-out. Everything in a story has a purpose. If we don't understand how varying lengths work and why, then how do we use length to serve our story?

Personally, I like arcing chapters that feel like little stories unto themselves, particularly when they end in a satisfying way but with a hook. (One reason why I love Joseph Finder and JA Konrath.)

I don't read to ends of chapters, except in well-done cases of the above.

Bernita said...

I'm used to a lot of snow, Bonnie, but that is excessive.
Um...be careful what you wish for...

Now I'm wondering how long is the average crap,Pat!
And no doubt there ARE statistics on that!

One page sounds like going to hell in the opposite direction, Robyn.

I think the length can affect a reader's perception, Spy and should be analyzed because of that.
Have the idea that the traditional chapter length had more to do formerly with things like printing and binding.

Donnetta Lee said...

Well,I believe that size matters. Donnetta

Shesawriter said...

Definitely something to think about. I try to make my chapters short, I really, really try, but I fail every time. :-)

Bernita said...

Donnetta, I would have been disappointed if someone had not made that comment.

I think I have to Lizzie Borden my MSS, Tanya.