Friday, 18 November 2011

Why Chapters Can Be Like Malteasers

A book has two potential actions attached to it: being read, and being written. Before we start writing we are readers (I hope - if you're trying to write a novel and you don't read, quick, quick, stop reading this blog and pick up the nearest novel in your genre).

So, our initial experience of books is as a reader, and as a reader we find chapters useful because they divide the text - which may well be over 100,000 words - into useful chunks. We need the text to be in useful chunks because it's rare one has the opportunity to read a book from cover to cover in one sitting. More usually we're reading until it's lights out time, or our bus stop approaches, or our name is called in the waiting room. Chunks make it easier to leave the text and start doing whatever it is we need to do next.

Chunks of text have other benefits for the reader. I heard on the radio recently a discussion about an author's books - I think it was Peter James, but I'm not sure - and one man was saying how much he enjoyed the books because the chapters were so short. It gave him a sense of achievement that he was reading so many chapters. The other man commented that when he knew the chapters were short he felt more like reading them, because he wouldn't get trapped. The first man agreed, but added that he often read more than he'd planned because of exactly that reason - because there was a let out clause, he would try the next chapter, get hooked, read on, try the next chapter, get hooked, read on etc.

Obviously to him, chapters were like Malteasers to me - only 16 calories each, so an allowable treat. Yeah, right - and whoever ate just ONE Malteaser? I can get through a whole packet in no time at all.

When we're writing we need to remember our experiences as readers. As writers we choose where to put our chapters with that in mind. One writer chooses lots of short chapters - they're probably only a scene long. My chapters are longer, perhaps containing several scenes, but I work hard at trying to create great chapter ends, ones that lure the reader into reading on.

I don't think it matters how you work your chapters. Just so long as you get the reader to eat the whole packet.

9 comments:

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I dislike overly short chapters as it makes me feel like I am reading a cut down version of a story! They can also speed the reading experience too much...

Sarah Duncan said...

Pat, I'm not a fan of v short chapters either, and I realise it's exactly for the same reason. But horses for courses - some people like them, obviously.

womagwriter said...

I love this post and feel a whole lot better about my rather short chapters now! I have tried to ensure 1000 words is the minimum length. Some are up to 3000 words. Each chapter is the length I felt it needed to be when writing it, and since then, I've been madly counting words in books I'm reading to see if other writers have such short chapters! (Some do.)

Sarah Duncan said...

One of my favourite writers - Anne Tyler - often has chapters of over 10,000 words. That's too long for me, but I still love her work.

In my own writing I try for a chapter length of between 1000-6000, and they're usually in the 2000-4000 range. But that's me.

Your approach is spot on in reading similar books and seeing if there's a genre preference. And at the end of the day, it's your book and you decide! I reckon you can get away with anything, so long as the reader carries on reading.

Liz Fielding said...

I do like chapters to be varied in length and these days not too long - my personal "lights out" seems to come sooner rather than later. Long gone are the days when I'd read until 3 in the morning. The eyes just won't take it. :(

But love the Maltesers analogy.

Giles Diggle said...

I write Chapters for teenage readers 2,200-2500 words in length and finish each with a hook. I recently read "The Redbreast" by Jo Nesbo on my iPod Touch while travelling. Jo Nesbo's short chaptersare a real bonus when reading on a tiny screen.

penny simpson said...

It so depends on the quality of the writing. I am not a fan of short chapters although I love choppy prose. Dare I say that I think short chapters suit reading matter that is aimed at readers with short attention span and who may readers who want a bit of light entertainment they can pick up and put down. I, of course write Tolstoy (!).

Nadia Damon said...

Hi Sarah,
I've just completed a revision of my novel – and something that I noticed about my chapters was that I had worked in what I thought were some great cliffhangers, but then abseiled down a few of them by not concluding the chapter there and then. In turn, I found that really affected the overall pacing of the story.
I've addressed that by increasing the chapter count from 30 to 44 now, with a real mix of short and long chapters dictated by the events rather than my own preferences.
Personally, I don't really mind long or short chapters when I'm reading – but I do like my Malteasers, so if someone is going for a longer chapter, they really need to keep the tempo up to keep my attention.

Sarah Duncan said...

Really interesting feedback here, and it's interesting to think about age/technology/attention spans affecting how we read.

Nadia, I've done a few posts about chapter ends which you might find interesting.