Thursday, July 13, 2017 | By: The Write Way Cafe

Chapter Chatter—The Write Way is Your Way By Elizabeth Harmon

The Write Way Café welcomes Elizabeth Harmon, whose experience suggests chapter length is debatable.

A few years ago at a mixer for my local Chamber of Commerce, I chatted with a Realtor who seemed to have an opinion about everything. When I mentioned that I was also a fiction author, she was ready with advice.

“Never make your chapters longer than five pages.”

Since my chapters averaged ten to twelve, I was curious as to why. The lady was quick with an answer—“because that’s how James Patterson does it, and look how successful he is!”

Four (soon to be five) books into my career, I’m nowhere near as successful as James Patterson, at least not yet. Is it because my chapters are too long? Or does something other than trying to mimic a best-selling author, dictate ideal chapter length?

The good news is that chapters can be as long, or as short as you like. It all depends on the story.

Writer’s Digest blogger Brian Klem’s advice is to think of chapters breaks the same way that commercials break up a TV episode. Something important happens, the show cuts to commercial. Action resumes, builds to the next big event and BOOM! Cut to commercial. Return. Repeat.

This is the mini-cliffhanger at work. By breaking your chapter just after a major story turning point, you entice readers to stay tuned and keep turning pages.

But a 90,000-word novel might use the first 10,000 to 15,000 words to establish characters, goals, conflicts, and settings before the first major plot point kicks in.  At the story’s climax, turning points might happen in every scene.  And what’s the best way to handle multiple point of view characters? Should each have her own chapter, or is it okay to combine them?

The answer? It’s up to you and what works best in your story and genre.

A simple rule of thumb is that shorter chapters increase pacing, while longer chapters slow it down. In a fast-paced genre like thrillers or suspense, short chapters help sustain the rush. Genres like romance, historical, women’s or literary fiction might need longer chapters to reveal character and establish setting and story, especially early on. Shorter chapters occur as the story closes.

Your publication format can also play a role. Romance author Abigail Owen’s editor advised her to use 5 to 8 page chapters for her ebooks to accommodate the format’s  “ADD approach to reading.” Keeping chapters shorter helps maintain engagement and minimizes the reader’s sense of not knowing where they are in a story.

My own experience bears this out. I’ve DNF-ed lots of ebooks because of chapters that seemed to drag on and on. Would I have had the same reaction if I’d read those books in print? Likewise, a print book with chapters of five pages or less feels choppy to me—though my Realtor friend and James Patterson might disagree.

As a digital-first contemporary romance author, I’ve found that my sweet-spot chapter length is about ten to twelve pages or around 3,000 words. My chapters typically have two or three scenes and I prefer to stick to one character’s point of view. Sometimes, I’ll break a chapter in the middle of a scene to switch from one POV to another.

Longer chapters tend to come early in the book, while I like to use shorter ones near the end to wrap things up, especially if plot developments are fast and furious.

Generally, my editors, readers, and reviewers have praised my books’ pacing—with one notable exception.

In a book that was highly character-driven, I used longer chapters that averaged 15 to 20 pages. While the book’s reviews were positive overall, one consistent issue seemed to be its slower pace. For the next book, I returned to my 10 to 12-page comfort zone. No one complained about pacing.

Was this because of how readers interact with ebooks? Was it because readers had become used to my style and were thrown when I changed things up? Tough to say. But I do know that I’ve found an approach that feels right, works with how I like to tell stories and seems to engage readers.

It’s one less thing to worry about as I strive to be as successful as James Patterson!

Is there a method to your chapter-length madness? Short and sweet, long and leisurely, or somewhere in the middle? One POV or several? 

Post a comment to win a copy of Pairing Off, the first book in my Red Hot Russians series!

American figure skater Carrie Parker’s Winter Games dreams were dashed when her philandering partner caused one of the greatest scandals in skating history. Blacklisted from competing in the United States, her career is over…until she receives a mysterious invitation and is paired with the most infuriating, talented—and handsome—skater she’s ever met.

Russian champion Anton Belikov knows sacrifice. He gave up a normal life and any hope of a meaningful relationship to pursue his dream. And he’s come close—with a silver medal already under his belt, the next stop is the gold. All he needs is a partner. While he’s never forgotten the young American skater he seduced one long-ago night in Amsterdam, he never expected to be confronted with their past…never mind share the ice with her.

When what starts as a publicity stunt grows into something real, Carrie and Anton’s partnership will test their loyalties to family, country and each other. With only a few months to train for the competition of a lifetime, can they master technique and their emotions, or will they lose their footing and fall victim to the heartaches of their pasts?

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About the author: Contemporary romance author Elizabeth Harmon loves to read and write romances with a dash of different. She is the author of the Red Hot Russians sports romance series. Her debut novel Pairing Off is a 2016 RITA® Award Finalist.

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HiDee said...

Great post, Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing with us!

Elizabeth Harmon said...

Thanks for hosting me!

Mark R Hunter said...

My chapters generally range from around 1,500 - 3,000 or so ... but my only rule has been that I don't want want to be a great deal longer or shorter than the others. You've given me something to think about on the subject!

Elizabeth Harmon said...

I agree, consistency is good. Thanks for commenting.