Friday, January 27, 2006

AG: How Long Should a Chapter Be?




Being an insecure writer, I like to surround myself with novels by other authors who do things the way I do. That way, I feel justified in the decisions I make. Writing a novel involves more than telling a story. There are big decisions to make right up front. Decisions like, “How Long Should a Chapter Be?”

I’m a facts and figures man so I conducted a purely subjective test. I grabbed a dozen novels by different writers from secular and Christian publishing then dutifully counted the chapters, compared them to number of pages, broke out Microsoft Excel, punched in the numbers, created a chart and ended up with this (hey, it’s easier than doing real writing):


Chapter Page Ratio Study
Author-- Title-- Chapters-- Total Pages-- Pages per Chapter
Robin Cook-- Marker-- 25-- 406-- 16.2
Jeffery Dever-- 12th Card--45-- 396-- 8.8
Brad Meltzer-- Zero Game-- 84-- 346-- 4.1
Johnathan Kellerman-- Rage-- 46-- 317-- 6.9
James Patterson-- 4th of July-- 146-- 344-- 2.4
Michael Connelly-- The Closer-- 44-- 403-- 9.2
Terri Blackstock-- Last Light-- 70-- 367-- 5.2
Clive Cussler--Black Wind-- 67-- 530-- 7.9
Frank Peretti --Monster-- 21-- 419--20.0
Jack Cavanaugh-- Dear Enemy-- 43-- 283-- 6.6
Dean Koontz-- The Taking-- 67-- 338-- 5.0
Brandilyn Collins-- Dead of Night-- 49-- 366-- 7.5
Average-- 58.9 chapters-- 376.3 pages -- 8.3 pages per chapter
Less that 10 pages per chap: 8
Greater than 10: 3


A quick survey reveals that the length of a fiction chapter should be exactly whatever the author wants it to be—no more; no less. James Patterson has taken the “cinematic style” to extremes: just 2.4 pages per “chapter”. That’s a lot of white space. There was a time when writers got paid by the word, but I’m left wondering if Mr. Patterson is paid by the column inch of white space. I’m not knocking Patterson. I don’t have exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure he sells a few more books than I do (exponentially). Still, 2.4 pages per chapter!

On the flip side, Frank Peretti and Robin Cook stayed old school with 20 and 16.2 pages per chapter respectively. Nothing wrong with that. Interestingly, some authors (Koontz for example) will write a book with long chapters and then one with “chapterettes.”

The short chapters are more like scenes in a movie. Watch a contemporary film and the number of cuts, camera changes, scene changes is enormous. Even television commercials will often have twenty or more cuts in a thirty second spot.

In the last few decades we have seen the rise of sound bytes, music videos, and multi-storyline dramas. The other day I watched a CSI (I forget which flavor) episode that wove three unrelated story lines in a 60 minute program—reminiscent of Love American Style and Love Boat. And all television shows are broken into bite size segments meant to fill those annoying gaps between commercials.

So how long should a chapter be? Long enough to contribute to the unbroken telling of the story. If your plot works better with a James Patterson 3 page chapter approach (and a 146 chapter book), then so be it. If you prefer longer chapters and can still keep the readers attention, then that’s what you should write.

Still, there is much talk about the decline of the modern attention span. One British clergyman has created what he calls the 100 Minute Bible. His goal is to introduce people to the Scriptures by condensing them to a few key stories.

Just as I am about to be convinced that shorter chapters are better because most of don’t have the time, inclination or ability to sit and read, out comes an 800 page novel, or a three plus hour movie about a really big ape.

For an interesting read about the declining attention span in the western world and the 100 Minute Bible visit Albert Mohler’s blog from September of last year.

On behalf of those of us with short attention spans, I’ll quit here.

Alton Gansky has written dozens of novels which you can explore at http://www.altongansky.com/
Don't forget to visit his writer/reader blog http://www.altongansky.typepad.com/

7 Comments:

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Interesting article. Thanks for your research. I attended a writers' workshop last Saturday, and the speaker said the average TV show has 30 scenes but Law & Order has 47. Thanks again.

 
At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huzzah! Huzzah! for the 800 page novel.

 
At 11:41 AM, Blogger Cara Putman said...

Thanks for the fun read. I actually wrestle with how long my chapters should be -- and go back and forth. Started long; now middle length -- someday I'll have to make a decision. :-)

 
At 2:57 PM, Blogger Katie Hart said...

I also wonder what the statistics are for historical vs. fantasy vs. suspense. Short chapters would seem to be a "trick of the trade" for suspense writers, yet look at Peretti's length. Maybe it has more to do with pace and detail - how much authors choose to leave to the readers' imagination. The Chronicles of Narnia compared to Lord of the Rings. A three-page chapter can cover the same amount of action as a twenty-page one.

I divide my novels into scenes as I write (time elasping or POV change), so deciding where to place chapter breaks is one of the last things I do. I try to end each chapter with something to make the reader turn to the next, and keep chapter lengths somewhat even.

 
At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a related field, I read recently that Alfred Hitchcock, in an early film, shot the story in ten minute uncut segments (the length of a roll of film). He wanted to see if he could do it. It bombed. But I like the idea of playing with our tools of the trade (for us, chapter lengths) for artistic and dramatic effect. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But it takes a bold artist to try. I admire that.

Thanks for bringing up the topic, Al.

Jack Cavanaugh

 
At 5:37 PM, Anonymous Joanne said...

Interesting how I believe I just read this post on Al's website. Oh well, it was just as interesting this time as it was last time. Bravo!

 
At 4:28 PM, Blogger Bonnie Calhoun said...

I never actually thought about it. I end at the end of a thought, that propells you to the next scene. Wherever that 'moving forward' thought comes is the end of the chapter!

 

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