Monday, July 22, 2013

Chapter Length

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
Hope everyone has had a good last couple of weeks…I did.  I even managed to have an adventure…more on that on Friday.
From time to time I get emails or comments asking about manuscript basics.  The emails are frequently apologetic in nature as if the writer were asking something that everyone knew but her.  That’s just not the case because I see shifts in areas even relating to manuscript formatting—it’s always worth asking.
This particular question was from another mystery writer and the question was on chapter length. 
I used to write longer chapters than I do now.  There are several reasons why I think I did…although I didn’t put much thought into it at the time.  One reason is that I built in a good number of section breaks into each chapter.  My chapters frequently encompassed several scenes (so, there’d be a big change of some kind at several points in the chapter: a change of setting, a change of characters my sleuth was talking to, etc.)  Another reason is that I put my chapter breaks in as I wrote—and I don’t think I paid very much attention when the last chapter had occurred or how many pages I was into the new chapter.  There would simply seem to be a great spot for a chapter break and I’d stick it in and go merrily on my way. My editors didn’t mind this…I was never asked to change the location of a break or to make my chapters a different length.
What made me switch to short chapters were the readers.  Obviously, we’re talking about genre fiction/commercial fiction here—if you’re writing literary fiction,  this probably won’t apply.  But the readers actually complained about my chapter length—both directly to me in email and in customer reviews on online retailers like Amazon.
That made me immediately change course.  Readers said that their busy lives meant that they needed more frequent chapter breaks so that they could find their place easier (these are obviously readers who are reading the mass market paperbacks and not the ebooks.)  They also felt that longer chapters set a slower pace…they felt they weren’t making progress. 
At this point, I’ve usually got one scene per chapter.  My chapters are ordinarily 10 pages (double-spaced Word docs…each page at 250 words…although sometimes my pages have fewer than 250 words since I use a lot of dialogue.)  I haven’t heard a bit of criticism on my chapter length since then.  And no comment from Penguin on my change….they don’t seem to mind one way or the other.  
My other change in the way I approached chapters was that I inserted chapter breaks at the end of the first draft.  This helps me to keep the breaks fairly regular and helps me adhere to my 10 page-break goal.  Sometimes, obviously, I’m not exactly 10 pages between breaks.  There will be some areas in a book where a chapter break is perfect…cliffhanger moments.  So, if I’ve got a body discovered, I’m not sticking that right in the middle of chapter ten.  I’ll either make chapter ten super-short or change the length of bordering chapters.
Again, as I like to reiterate on these kinds of posts—there is no wrong or right method.  I’ve never had an editor talk with me about chapter length.
How long are your chapters, as a writer?  As a reader, do you have a preference?