I wrote at length recently about how smart it is to write short. (Wow, that got meta-ironic fast.) I was talking about the length of books, the allure of serialization and the benefits to both writers and readers. Today, I’m talking about chapters.
I’m currently revising the book I wrote while wearing my big-boy underpants. This Plague of Days took a little under a year to write back when I wrote part-time. Every day, I’d go to a coffee shop to get away from distractions. I got sucked into the point of view of a boy with Aspergers Syndrome during the coming plague apocalypse. His family hides out in suburbia while much of the world dies. The longer the book goes on, day by day, things get worse around his Christlike figure. When I wrote it, I wasn’t concerned about chapter length. I’d sketched an outline packed with beats and I put my head down and plunged into the story.
As I revise This Plague of Days now, I see how I was writing to the beats and each file folder was a chapter. Each writing session often yielded more than 5,000 words, all in one file/chapter! I’m breaking that up, obviously. As I look for logical places to split the file into more chapters, the logical spots are easy to find. I go out on a beat.
It’s a principle of podcasting, stand-up comedy and entertainment generally that you go out on a high note. Cliffhangers, twists, teasers and aha moments belong at the end of the chapter to seduce readers to turn the page and go for the next chapter. The more of those special moments, peaks or beats you have, the faster the pace of the book. Make the chapters short and those peaks are closer together. More beats close together equals momentum.
If you don’t slow down to develop character, a hundred awful, exciting things may happen but no one will care. Here’s an ugly example of a pace that’s too fast:
Emma’s fiance, Rollo, dies in a skywriting accident when he tries to put the dot under the question mark as he pens “Emma! Will you marry me?” in the sky and ends up flying too low into the meat grinder of nearby chicken factory. Grief-stricken, Emma attends the funeral where Rollo’s mother tries to kill her in a rage. Terrified, Emma escapes to Italy where she falls in love with sculpture and decides to rebuild her life around art. Then, Phillipe, a very handsome and wealthy art connoisseur takes her under his wing, but how does he know Rollo’s mother and is he, in fact, an assassin assigned to murder her after their first night of passion? THEN, ON THE SECOND PAGE…
More spikes aren’t better if the characters are undeveloped. Readers don’t care for whiplash. However, you could take a page from Mary Higgins Clark. Her short chapters skip along. The closer the reader gets to the climax, the shorter the chapters become. This heightens the sense of forward momentum and keeps my wife, She Who Must Be Obeyed, awake much past her optimal bedtime as she powers toward the end of those thrillers.
We have a strange attachment to symmetry, don’t we though? Maybe that’s why more authors do not vary the length of their chapters. I’ve even heard of one author taking perverse pride in hitting an arbitrary word count so each chapter was the same length. That sort of peculiarity may serve someone’s OCD, but your OCD is supposed to serve the story above all else. (He must have been crushed when it came back from the editor with varying word counts.)
Don’t under do
If all the chapters are too short, it can feel to the reader that the author was skimping. For instance, while I generally admire James Sallis’s neo-noir novel Driven, some later chapters are so short and light on detail that I felt like I was missing something. He was painting a great picture overall, but here and there he didn’t have enough paint on his brush. I had to check to make sure I hadn’t skipped pages. Don’t make readers dizzy and fill them with self-doubt.
In a book of short stories, you can get away with stories so brief they could be non-rhyming poems. I have a few short chapters in Self-help for Stoners but I don’t worry about it because I’m not fragmenting a larger narrative with a short jolt. Or you can ape Faulkner and write, “My mother is a fish” and leave it at that, I suppose, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Find the right length
You can delight readers with shorter books and shorter chapters as long as they aren’t confused. For instance, a lot of short chapters with multiple points of view can confuse the casual reader. They might accuse you of head-hopping. It wouldn’t technically be true, but that’s how your narrative might feel to them. Stephen King’s It and The Stand manage large casts, but the chapters are longer. Just about the time you’re thinking, Enough of him, what’s happening with so-and-so, you’re switching to another character’s plight.
A warning and a hope
You’ll find the break points for chapters easily and intuitively if you have enough beats. If you don’t have enough beats, you may be writing something of great literary value but it’s probably too slow to be of commercial value. And by slow, yes, I mean boring. Not every story has to drive forward with breakneck speed or maintain an even pace throughout. However, if the way stations of chapter breaks are too far apart, you aren’t giving your readers confidence that they are moving toward a destination. That’s the death of a lot of books. Give us action, engagement, obstacles, reversals, rising action, higher stakes and make us care.
If a comedy like The Big Bang Theory can make me cry over a single line uttered about a letter from Howard Wolowitz’s absent father (it did), you can make us care about your characters. Do it at a good speed.
~ I mentioned how I’d write about marketing in my next post. This is the next post so it turns out I lied. However, I’ll try to get back to that in my next post. I’m experimenting with building buzz about upcoming books with inexpensive strategies. I’ll tell you more about that in my next post. Or I’ll write about unreliable narrators. There’s that pesky meta-irony again.
Here’s a marketing hint to tide you over:
I’m promoting two books by reading one on Vine. I’m doing it with a contest. Check out the details on that contest at AllThatChazz.com.
Have a peek at ThisPlagueofDays.com for some flavor of what’s to come.