Three ways to tame your chapter lengths

guest post by Jonathan Pepper

from Rick:

Back in July we discussed how to find the right words to best express your ideas in your writing.

(7/8/13: Finding the Right Word)

Recently, Jonathan Pepper posted some excellent advice for writers on Silver Pen. It was such wonderful advice that I asked him to consider expanding it for a post here. His words struck home for me because I’ve fallen into the word-count trap on several occasions. When writing a novel, it’s too easy to worry about how you’re going to write several thousand words than about the bigger picture of how the story is making the reader turning the pages.

Despite the title of this post, it’s really about overall word-count, and making the words count, and less about chapter lengths. Of course, it also applies to story length in general. I’ve seen many new writers ask about how long a chapter should be. In his post, Jonathan Pepper gives great insight and advice on this question.

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from Jonathan Pepper:

You’ve written the last sentence of your novel’s first chapter. Or maybe it’s your second or eighth chapter, and each drafted to 10,000+ words.

Great! That’s a lot of words—your manuscript’s word-count is stacking up.

But now you’re wondering: Are those chapters too short? Too long? Do I need to give the reader a break?

These are the kinds of questions new writers often tackle, and the popular advice tells you to either “maintain a consistent average word-count across your chapters” or (this is my personal favourite), “count the chapter lengths of ten books in your genre—and write to that number.”

Popular advice is woefully incomplete.

A FALSE METRIC FOR SUCCESS

New writers write with two things in mind:

     1. Their story;
     2. A target word-count;

When faced with a genre average of 80,000–100,000 word novels, the natural inclination is to word-stuff. The results are lengthy chapters focused on word-count and not story.

It’s a seductive trap.

WAYS TO AVOID THE TRAP

There are better approaches to taming chapter length without falling into that trap. Here are three ways:

     1. Forget word-count. “B-but that’s my target!” No. Your target is completing your story—something that word-count does not affect. Let the words, “The End,” be your carrot.

     2. Write chapters with tension in mind. “I have plenty of tension within my chapter.” But are your chapter endings provoking the reader to continue?

     3. Write chapters with pacing in mind. “My chapters are full of fast-paced action.” But are you taking advantage of your scenes, inciting your reader to chase your story down?

Remember that none of these approaches are mutually exclusive.

WHAT’S IN A WORD COUNT?

This first approach seems overly simple; however, with word-count being so engrained in our thinking, it’s easy to slip back into following something more tangible—attainable.

When you stop thinking about word-count, you start thinking about the words you’re using.

Are you using three words, when one would be better? Two adverbs when a stronger verb will do?

Think about the story you’re telling on that page. Where it begins and ends. When you stop word-stuffing, and focus on sentence-crafting, you’re stepping away from mindless drafting.

But why stop there? Consider the other two approaches.

CHAPTER LENGTHS AND TENSION

With TENSION in mind, you write to entice readers with resolutions to conflict. Even if they take a break from reading, that lingering tension should still be there when they return to your story.

New writers have a natural tendency to explain, and provide conclusions at the end of each chapter. It’s a tension-diminishing practice. You’re telling the reader, “It’s OK to put the book down now.”

But we want the opposite behaviour.

J.K. Rowling hadn’t mastered this technique until Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Before then, her chapters ended with some quiet conclusion. Later, her chapters improved, ending with tension-laced lines, inviting the reader to ask, “What happens next?”

Mystery authors capitalize on approach: simple, pithy lines that beg the reader to wonder.

Place that hook—that unanswered question—to entice the reader to continue. Pull them into the next chapter. Then do it again.

CHAPTER LENGTHS AND PACING

Lastly, PACING. It’s close to TENSION with similar effects—to entice readers to turn the page—but the strategy is quite different.

Think about authors like James Patterson. He writes stories that are hard to put down. Readers breeze through his books. Though the plot might be tightly measured, each chapter is paced faster than the previous.

And here’s the clever thing: look at his chapter lengths—spanning a few pages at best—the length of a scene, sometimes half to three-quarters in most other works.

Patterson, lauded as a pioneer of this technique within his genre, uses scene length as a yardstick for pacing. Longer scenes carry into the next chapter, but always, he keeps the chapters short and sweet, ending them where they have the most tension.

With such brief chapters, readers are easily rewarded—a compelling incentive to continue reading.

But short chapters aren’t unique to Patterson. Neither are tension-laced chapter endings unique to Rowling. It’s a standard approach with Children’s Literature and Middle Grade fiction.

Recall books like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or Charlotte’s Web. The authors of these memorable stories crafted their books by combining these three approaches.

A massive word-count is not a meaningful metric for measuring your story. It changes through copy, content and line-edits. That number fluctuates until the moment ink hits the paper.

Instead, take control of your story and approach your chapter lengths with TENSION and PACING in mind. Pull the reader forward with purposeful choices about when and how you end your chapters.

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About Jonathan Pepper:

Jonathan Pepper is a web-developer by day, and a writer by night working on his first novel, “The Willowmark.” He lives in Ottawa, Canada, where he is doing his best to soak up the summer before The Great White Winter settles in.