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What is the ideal chapter length?

This is one of those questions where there is no correct answer. So the better question would be this:

When you are reading a book, do you like long chapters or short chapters?

Chapters are, of course, natural starting and stopping points of a novel. If a chapter is well written and gripping, length doesn’t really matter. Of course, a good chapter ending will entice the reader so much that they have to read just “one more” before calling it a night. If that happens more than once a night, I guess you have a page-turner on your hands.

My preference has always been short. I’ve always been a slow reader so a forty page chapter usually intimidates me. For me, when I was in school, long chapters felt more like a chore than anything else. I always loved fast-moving chapters, with lots of dialogue, limited description, and intriguing character-driven plot. I guess for those reasons I’ve always loved Hemingway.

I got to thinking about chapter lengths today because last night (or should I say early this morning) I wrote what I believed to be the longest chapter I’ve ever written. It comes in at a whopping 5000 words. It is 2.5 to 3 times my average chapter length.

If you have read Beauty Rising, you will notice that the chapters are short. That’s done by design. I wanted  the starts and stops of the chapters to create a fast-paced story where people wanted to keep flipping pages. I believe I’ve accomplished my goal based on a lot of great feedback I’ve received.

I also like to use short chapters as hooks. I did that in Beauty Rising with a one-page first chapter where Martin has his wallet stolen in Vietnam.

I’m using this tactic again in (untitled) novel three which I am currently writing. I start the novel by having two very short chapters. I call these two chapters the prologue. “The Cliff” starts the novel at a paltry 265 words followed by “Prison” at 353 words. The thinking here is simple. I’m hoping that these two will be so intriguing that whoever reads them will want to find out what they are all about. If I do my job correctly, they will lead the reader right into the heart of the story.

Part I of the novel has thirteen chapters currently at only 17000+ words. You can do the math. Yes, they are short.

As I started writing Part II, I realized that things changed a little. Part II has more of an “epic” feel to it. Complex story-lines and characters who are involved in very challenging circumstances. By the time I got to the 5th chapter of Part II, it ended up being 4300 words. A record for me. But then came chapter 6, weighing in around 5000.

So my thoughts on chapter lengths are continuing to evolve. It depends on the setting and purpose. It depends on the story and characters.

I still like short chapters and will continue to mainly write that way. But a little mix and match sometimes keeps things fresh. 

Messy Writing

I get the feeling that the way I write would drive some people up the proverbial wall.  It’s messy, disorganized, driven by the moment and not by some overarching master plan. It’s like a bloodhound walking through the forest and suddenly tearing off under the thicket after a rabbit.  It’s a method of continual discover and wondering (and wandering).  It’s a sudden thunder storm on an otherwise sunny day.

And that’s the way I like it.

I admire writers who can plan out in detail where exactly their story is going, but I like taking the route of discovery.

My ideas come in waves.  One brilliant idea takes me in one direction for a while.  While wrapped up in fleshing out the details, another bout of inspiration takes me on a detour I had completely not anticipated.

Of course as more of the story gets fleshed out, I start to envision the silhouette of the final form of my project, but it is shadow puppetry – you see the form, but not the clear image.

I’m still in the (relatively) early stages of my second novel.  It’s about a recluse storyteller who uses the ordinary folk from her apartment building to tell these far-out tales which ultimately reveal her own hardships.  I’m at about 18,000 words and I actually have no idea how this story is going to turn out.  But every time I sit down to write, I’m surprised (and usually very happy) at where my ideas and words take me.  It’s so much fun for about 2000 words and then I dry up, set it aside and wait for the next bout of inspiration.

That’s how I do it.  Is it strange?  I don’t know.

I’d love to hear how you approach your writing.