Chapter length

What preference do you have for books with short chapters (say, 5-10 pages)?

  • I’d leave it on the shelf
  • The pacing would need to be good for me to stick with it
  • I prefer longer chapters, but it’s unlikely to impact my decision to read the book
  • I have no preference at all
  • I actually prefer books with shorter chapters

0 voters

The book I’m working on at the moment has very short chapters, ranging from five to ten pages long. It seems to suit the pacing of the story, and I suppose it gives the book natural tube journey / coffee break chunks.

I’d be interested to learn what everyone’s general view on chapter length is. I know it’s one of those “how long is a piece of string” questions, and will be impacted by how good the writing and story are, but I’m interested to learn whether short chapters prompt any initial reactions in a reader (or browser in a bookshop) that would need to be overcome.

I know from a personal perspective that the first time I read a [FAMOUS THRILLER AUTHOR] novel with it’s 4 page chapters my first thoughts were that maybe it was a book written by a computer programme based on an outline typed in to an Excel spreadsheet. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have bought several others since, but had a friend not lent me that initial book I might never have bothered.

Writing as a reader, if I browsed a book with short chapters for the first time, I’d like to see some longer chapters too. I suppose that’s because I like to believe that I have a longer attention-span and that shorter-chaptered books are for shorter-attention-span people. So diversity of chapter-length would feed my vanity.

But, conversely, it would probably deter readers who are proud to have an attention span that’s pruned. :slight_smile:

More seriously, I believe the chapter length should suit the genre, style of writing, vocabulary, length of sentences, climaxes, frequency and placing of cliff-hangers, tension, conflict, intensity of emotion, and of course target reader. The only rule I know is that you should position your chapter breaks in such a way that will best keep your target reader reading on.

Why do we have chapters again? Convenience of whom?

Let me explain. I read instead of … not really sure what, but do far I don’t read while I’m driving. Other than that I like to read. Unless the company is interesting, which, if you knew my family then the company is quite comical and often more than interesting. Anyway, I read pretty much all day. Outside of a technical† manual where there are distinct separations for information cohesion, I see chapters as a bit of a PITA. I never “stop” on a chapter boundary. I stop when I am done or bored. I never really look up specific chapters for reference unless it is in one of the above technical manuals.

So what is the point of interrupting the flow and inserting an arbitrary chapter?

†[size=70]Technical in this case refers to a text whose purpose is strictly informational. Could be economics, politics, history, C++, etc.[/size]

Chapters in fiction allow the author to change viewpoint characters, to change topics, time, location.

Like Time, Chapters prevent everything from happening at once.

Friend Ahab,

One might note that the brief chapters in Moby-Dick
Do not make it seem any shorter.

Ishmael (channeled via Droo)

It’s a fair challenge - and one that warrants an answer given the premise of my original post.

The aim is - hopefully with some success - that the chapter divisions aren’t arbitrary. I’m using them as a a form of heavy punctuation - kind of like those 2 second shots of the outside of a building you get on tv shows. Echoing Ahab’s post, the chapter marks fall at changes of perspective or pace; sometimes they mark a key emotional shift.

On my most recent re-reading of M-D, I found it almost too short. And that all the chapters began and ended exactly where they ought. Like, as Mr. Fender says down the page a bit, heavy punctuation–a period with political influence.

I can’t think of any book I actually found worth reading whose chapters felt arbitrarily divided. Each punctuation mark has, like rests in a musical score, a specific purpose of interrupting flow, giving readers a rest and a redirection. The chapter is simply the grandest interrupter and redirector of all. Except for The End.

That’s quite an interesting point. Short chapters mean that readers might be more inclined - even if just by chance - to finish a session when a chapter ends. Long chapters might encourage readers to abandon mid scene… which means you miss out on the cliff hangers and links at the end of one chapter and the hook at the beginning of the next.

To use computer games as an example - long and flowing strategy type games are pastimes and immersive. You play for as long as you do, and quit when you like. To quote Jaysen again, when bored.

Or you have those small interweb type games. Often horrificially addictive demanding just-one-more-play.

I don’t like the idea of people being bored at any point while reading my stuff, but I don’t want it to be shallow and repetitive either. Hmmm - seems like a delicate balancign act is required. Which brings me back to Hugh’s early post - diversity is perhaps the key?

There’s a dimension that no one’s mentioned - rhythm. Tune in to the rhythm of your work, and you’ll know instinctively where the natural breaks fall. But don’t let the rhythm become too monotonous or the chapter breaks will be too predictable - so yes, diversity should follow.

In defense of the chapter:

C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters shows the ideas of rhythm, “political punctuation” and shift of view.

I hadn’t read this for a few years and only started it after my original reply. That said the chapter breaks here work for me because of the intended method of relating to the reader (you are reading a letter sent from individual A to individual B).

I have no preference on the length of chapters, but I do really like small sections of a few pages each. That could be chapters of a few pages each, or just smaller sections within a chapter (e.g. an empty line between scenes or sections, or a mark or number, every few pages or so). I find I’m much more likely to keep reading if there are small sections like this (although this usually applies only if I’m reading at bedtime, admittedly), purely because I’ll get to the end of such a section with the intention of closing the book and going to sleep and then think, “Well, the next section is only three pages, I’ll just read that…” Before you know it, it’s 3am.

All the best,

Chapter length would never be a deciding factor for me in picking up a book. If someone has short chapters, I’ll assume it’s a device and will look forward to finding out what they do with it. I find that numbered/unnamed chapters are invisible to me – I second the notion that they are just large punctuation. Named chapters are more noticeable and I generally like them, especially if the title is somewhat abstract. They give me the sense that the author is trying to achieve a theme in this chapter. Because I sense the author is eager to convey a specific point, I get the cozy feeling that their language will be crisp and concise. I can never judge if they manage to achieve that theme because I don’t go back to the chapter title when I’m done reading the section. However, that sense of trust remains. There is only one type of chaptering that I find distracting and unnecessary: it’s when the chapter title announces something very mundane like what’s literally going to happen, or what part of the story we’re in. Those are useful tags for the author in organizing a book, but annoying to the reader. In that case, I’d take numbered/unnamed chapters. Also, specific made-up dates (fake-calendar-style) in chapter headings tend to annoy me. I always feel guilty for not keeping track of the fictional date… but then why would I?

So, looking over what I just wrote, I see nothing bad about chapters themselves. The author knows best what punctuation he or she needs. It’s more about the packaging and labeling of those chapters.

Slightly off-subject, but not really: I do have an emotional reaction to encountering novels divided into major sub-sections like “Book 1:___”. Every time I see one of these, I feel a rush on anxiety. They generally occur after big chunks of text. You just got into the story and here comes a red flag that the engrossing storyline is about to be abandoned in favor of some other perspective. Oh no! The shift of plotline or perspective doesn’t always happen… but I always feel that fear of abandonment.

Thanks kseniya. This is a particularly interesting comment as I am guilty of the ‘mundane announcement’. For example:

Hmm perhaps my amateur status is showing. I think I’ll get ‘beta readers’ to keep an eye on these.

Please don’t take my word for it quite so quickly! STYLE is a powerful and unique thing. Foreshadowing events of a chapter may be a pretty cool device, too, if that’s indeed what you intend to do. Sometime, if you give away the action in one sentence, it’s like saying that these things were small potatoes anyway and Just Wait until you see what I’ve Really cooked up in the chapter. IF that’s intentional. Those lovely little index cards in Scrivener and the useful little synopses we put into them… At least till now I’ve used those to summarize my text chunks to make it easier to organize and review the novel structure. If you read them apart from the narrative, they are like CliffsNotes. The danger is telling the story twice throughout the book – once in short-form and once in true narrative form. I think that goes against the cardinal rule of “Show, Don’t Tell”.

The other instance I’ve seen goes like: “Chapter 32: Day 15, Character’s apartment, after the big argument.” That’s kind of like a movie script – setting the scene and offering a quick handle. In a novel, I find it kicks me out of the narrative and forces me to step back and look at the structure of the book. “Day 15? Is that portentous? Was something supposed to happen on Day 15? Did I miss Day 13 and 14? And I already knew about the argument because, well, they just argued a page ago, but it’s called ‘THE BIG’ argument?! So they’ll never forgive each other?!”