Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why Writers Should Read-Chapter Lengths

Snuggle into a comfy setting with a book, lately?  Last night did you open to your bookmark, and devour the words on the page before turning off the light?

Depending on the time of day and a hundred other odd factors, book reading time can range from one precious minute to a whole day. 

Prime reading time for me is bedtime.

Some nights, though, I'm super tired and can read only a few pages. Other nights catastrophe hits, like the time I forgot to close the inside deck door and the stupid cat opened the screen. He walked inside, without closing the door, inviting every bug from the city to a party in our house. I hate stopping in the middle of a chapter. I also hate cats that can't close a door they open.

During the last two week challenge, I read Brandt Dodson's book, The Root of All Evil. A fabulous, fast pace whodunit. Before I reached the middle of the book, I knew what topic I would present in today's post: Chapter Lengths.

Here is what I learned from Dodson's book, The Root of All Evil.

1. Short chapters need to be concise, yet complete. Each chapter in Dodson's book slid one more piece of the puzzle into place. No more. He must have meticulously outlined the story to reveal only one clue at a time, like placing one foot in front of the other. Seriously, I didn't guess the right person in the end! The red herring fell into place and sent me thinking the wrong person. Wowsers.

2. Short chapters enhance page turners: Not one chapter bogged down the plot. There wasn't a "middle sag". I found myself finishing one chapter and reading a second, third or fourth even on sleepy nights, more than I usually read.

3. Short chapters don't allow for lengthy descriptions or long discussions between two or more characters.  I frequently scan through lengthy descriptions, and dialog, yawning as I slide forward to something exciting. I want to get the story moving. Dodson's short chapters never dragged. Like a rapid firing gun that periodically needs time to reload, his book snapped.

4. Chapter lengths need to be varied for richness like sentences.  Not every chapter in The Root of All Evil weighed in at five pages. He wrote a few longer ones, a couple two pagers, and sprinkled them appropriately throughout the book. Maybe he gave me, the reader, a chance to chew on the story before pushing me forward. 

Somewhere in my writing journey, I think I misunderstood what is the best length for a chapter. Did my teachers say chapters needed to be long? Were chapters in books I read normally ten or more pages? 

Hovering in the not published but learning phase, I tend to take rules literally. After seeng Dodson's example of short, exciting chapters, I was ready to apply this new skill. 

In fact, I already did. I looked back through my manuscript and saw where I could break chapters and combine others. The result: varied lengths, and concise yet complete chapters which will hopefully enhance my work to be a page turner.

Your book doesn't need to be a mystery or suspense to apply these concepts. Mine deals with a woman who lost her job, was evicted, and falls into living a homeless life in a train station. 

Take a look at the length of your chapters. Can you rearrange to have some short, some medium length, and some long?

All of Brandt Dodson's back list is available in Ebook formats now (all formats). He just returned from NY promoting The Sons of Jude which is available now on Amazon for pre-purchase. It publishes next week in the UK and in the states, mid September.

Once again I am looking for reading partners for another two week challenge. What book would you like to read the next two weeks? Let me know. Let's read together.

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This blog post is by Mary Vee
Mary lives in Montana with her husband and loves to hear from her three college kids. She writes contemporary Christian fiction and loves to pen missionary and Bible adventure stories.

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Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I love these practical tips, Mary! Not something we often consider, but so important!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks Karen.
Good to see you here today.

Jeanne T said...

Great post, Mary! Now I know how you finished so quickly! You couldn't put the book down. :)

Can our chapters be different lengths? I never even considered this. I guess I have been writing with the idea that my chapters should all be about the same length.

Love the idea of keeping things concise and crisp, regardless of length of chapter. Thanks for sharing your insights, Mary!

I'm in for the next two weeks. :)

Unknown said...

Great thoughts, Mary!! I totally think chapter length goes hand-in-hand with genre. In a suspense, long chapters just drag it good. In a romance, chapters which are too short can keep me from really getting in a character's head and living out the story with them. I love your point about chapters being complete, too!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Yeah. Glad you're in for the next challenge.

And YES chapters can be different lengths. Beth Vogt's book that I read the last time varied length as well. As a reader I love having a shorter chapter pop in. It's like a splash of cool water. I shake my head and say, wait a minute. What happened here. What do I do...turn the page and read the next chapter. Isn't that what we do? Find ways to help the reader keep reading.
As for longer chapters, sometimes the theme of the chapter needs a few more pages. To rob the reader would be a crime!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Great post, Mary! I'm glad to hear that chapters can vary in length. I always seem to struggle with my chapter breaks.

One thing I did discover on my own is that sometimes a chapter can be one scene - if it's at a crucial point in the story. It kind of highlights the importance of it!

Thanks for giving us permission to change it up! LOL.


Julia M. Reffner said...

I like this idea. I was totally lost on chapters when I started writing to the point that I am adding chapters as I edit.

Sure, I'll join in. Have a fiction pick I need to finish.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Personally, I like shorter chapters. Sometimes I find myself flipping forward to count how many pages until the chapter break!!!! I don't know if that is due to poor writing not keeping me engaged, or if it is because I am getting sleepy and want to end at the chapter break. (I always read a few chapters every night...makes my brain quit spinning!)

Mary Vee Writer said...

I see your point. I think readers expect romance to have longer chapter. Genre is a major factor. Thanks for adding that point :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Its nice to have preconceived rules lifted to enhance creativity.
Chapter breaks need to have a logical division at the end of a scene or two. Either way, it needs to leave with a question/issue and then start the next chapter with working toward the resolution.
Action - reaction

Mary Vee Writer said...

Yeah, Julia
I'll email you tomorrow.
I'm glad your chapters you found a way to make your chapters flow. BTW, you need to send me another one.

Mary Vee Writer said...

True confession. No matter what the book, (even my morning devotions) I always look to see how many more pages. Yup. There with you on that.
Doesn't mean the book isn't good.
I personally like short chapters....maybe I'm not the romance reader I had hoped. I think Melissa T. will have to train me. :)

Angie Dicken said...

I was surprised at the chapter lengths of some historical romance novels when I started looking at books from a writer's perspective. And I too, was on the same page as Jeanne, thinking I need to have relatively similar lengths for each chapter. The idea of a short chapter thrown in to make the story pop is enticing! Thanks Mary!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks, Ang:)

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Wow, I was just contemplating this myself! The first book I completed ranged around 1500 words per chapter, but the one that's now out on submission is closer to 2000.

I've noticed that lots of CBA books have about 60 chapters total, versus the 40 chapters they used to have. I think this reflects the quick-read style writing that's emphasized today: show, don't tell, and dialogue tagging is "out." Sometimes I miss the older ways!

Mary Vee Writer said...

So true. Times change..we need to keep running the race. If we do, we will produce fruit.
Seems you are being sensitive to the needs of your readers, and that is awesome. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the tip on chapter lengths. I will be visiting your ally for more tips.