How Long Is My Chapter?

There is an article in Writing Craft, a section of The Florida Writer’s blog, written by Louise Titchener on 8 December 2018 that caught my eye, because I’ve been wondering about the ‘correct length’ for a chapter: my current project has chapters of 6-7 pages, while, in the past, my chapters are more commonly 15-20 pages.

Louise Titchener’s biography in Amazon says that she is the author of over 40 published novels in a variety of genres including romance, science fiction fantasy, and mystery. She has also published articles in leading magazines and written book reviews for The Washington Post.

Louise Titchener

Her article says: “Chapters of twenty to thirty pages used to be the adult fiction norm. When I started attempting to write novels, I crafted long chapters—and proud of it.

“Guess what. Nowadays I’m cutting those long chapters by half, thirds, and sometimes even by quarters.

What changed? I think technology transformed reading habits. When I was learning to write, transitions were a big deal. Writers were advised never to change a scene, setting, or time period without preparing the reader with a well-developed transition. Figuratively speaking, the writer had to take his reader’s hand and lead him down the narrative path so he/she didn’t get lost.

“Today—not so much. When I first became aware of this shift I was cleaning up in the kitchen while listening to a television show in the other room. Because I wasn’t actually watching the show, it dawned on me that the scenes were extremely short and the cuts between scenes lacked transition. Viewers were making the narrative jumps without help. Was this because transitions were no longer required? Are consumers of media so accustomed to sudden swings in narrative point of view that they no longer need guideposts to follow?

“I think technology has trained people to accept quick bursts of action and move right on to new themes and points of view with very little preparation. Nowadays viewers and readers are sophisticated consumers who can navigate non-linear plots, lightning fast scene changes and shifts in time and space with ease. Or, at least, that’s what they’re asked to do in our culture’s mass media environment, and it seems to be working.

“On the other hand, I think most consumers these days have very little patience for long drawn out scene and character development. They have become acclimated to mass media offerings that move at a pace an older generation might have found perplexing.

“So what is the takeaway for writers? The advantage of a long chapter is the slow and steady development of character and scene. The reader feels the writer isn’t skimming the surface of a story, but digging deep, offering insights that only come with a leisurely and thoughtful pace.

“The advantage of a short chapter is the reader knows he can move from one chapter to the next without feeling trapped by a lengthy narrative. In other words, keeping your chapters short make it easier to write a page turner.

“What’s the caveat? Short chapters can make a story feel chopped up. What’s more, they all need to end on a hook that makes the reader want to stay engaged with the story. If your chapters are only three-five pages long, that’s a lot of hooks. On the other hand, maybe writing in short cuts is a good exercise in keeping a story moving with action, dialogue, and heart-racing events.

“If you’re not into heart-racing, the uninterrupted, more detailed narrative might be more satisfying. Decisions, decisions. Well, there’s always the happy medium—short enough to keep things moving, but long enough to make it seem worthwhile.”

Her point about serious serials on television is a good one.  The BBC and Netfix are both offering items like the current MotherFatherSon, which seem chopped up into small pieces of only one or two minutes and in each of which a new issue, scene and character might be introduced.  One has to watch with patience, dropping each piece of the puzzle into place in one’s mind.

I don’t have that kind of situation with the novel I am finishing now.  Rather, it is a ‘diary’ of the major events toward the end of a man’s life.  I have to keep the chapters relatively brief.  As it is at the moment, it is 24 chapters – one chapter per year – for a total of 168 pages, which will yield a 280 page, 95,000 word book.  Longer chapters would make a longer book – probably unnecessarily long.

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