We may argue that traditionally slower novels have longer chapters and faster novels have shorter chapters, the same sort of principle as paragraphing or sentences, but this isn’t always so. There have been literary novels which are assumed to be slower paced than genre novels with chapters that are only a line or even a word long. We may also have faster paced, often associated with genre novels, with long chapters but that doesn’t mean they necessarily move slower. In truth the length of a chapter doesn’t always dictate the pace people read a novel because there are methods of giving the sense of pace within chapters so we could still have long chapters but still have a fast moving novel.

Terry Pratchett said more than once that he used chapters in his children’s books because as a parent he knew about ‘reading until the end of the chapter’ when reading to a child. Immediately this gives us a reason for chapters, possibly short chapters, for the parent to put the bookmark in the book and say ‘that’s enough for tonight’. A similar logic could be applied to adult books, except with adults short chapters, in my experience, seem to have the effect of ‘they’re only short I’ll just read one more’. Here were might suggest the impression of a faster paced book may be given because people are more likely to read one more chapter if it’s a short one than if it’s fifty pages long. This, however, doesn’t make the shorter chapter more valid than the longer chapter.

We may consider Dickens’ approach to chapters instead where they’re long-ish and tend to end in a cliff-hanger. In the case of Dickens’ he was approaching his chapters from the perspective of serialised fiction. Each one had to encourage the reader to wait until the next instalment and reward them for that wait. Cliff-hangers at the end of chapters are often touted as The Way to get a reader to continue reading, but this doesn’t mean that you have to end all your chapters with cliff-hangers because some stories simply don’t work that way and if yours doesn’t that’s fine.

While we’re going to look at the different ways to break a chapter the essential point is that if you’re using chapters you break it when you feel you’ve got everything into that chapter that you want. This may be one scene or multiple scenes, a cliff-hanger or a gentle continuation, a move forward or back in time, whatever it is, it’s dictated by the way you feel the story should move not by universal rules dictating length, speed or genre.

For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on narrative structure see Finding Your Voice.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

One thought on “Long Versus Short

  1. My favourite chapter ending ever is by the late, great, Donald E. Westlake (as fine a craftsman-writer as they come, a man, incidentally, whom Terry Pratchett described as a ‘pro’), from Dancing Aztecs (aka A New York Dance). He describes how of his characters are ending their day as night falls over New York, and then concludes:

    “Everybody is settling down now. Everybody is going to sleep. You, too.”

    Somehow or other I’ve always read that chapter in bed, and never once failed to carry out Don’s order. How did he /know/?

    Liked by 2 people

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