Fast read, immersive read

Gone girl

Snappy chapters and still a deep read.

What’s the best kind of chapter? I’d like some feedback.

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about the virtue of short chapters. It struck me at first as a pretty superficial discussion.

I just finished Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn and thought the (generally) short chapters worked beautifully, and this was not a superficial read. I’m also reading a literary horror novel with very long chapters. Despite my preference for nice, meaty chapters and despite the amazing writing, it’s trying my patience. The author seems to be indulging himself.

I know there’s no golden-clad answer here. Nonetheless, I’m wondering if I’m behind the times.

Is our internet window on the world teaching us to consume stories and facts in bite-sized pieces? And even if not, are we just too busy to read eleven pages before head hits the pillow?

Don’t worry, just write

But, you say, aren’t chapters as long as they need to be? Shouldn’t they at the very least be an entire scene? And aren’t those scenes driven by tone, genre and the forward needs of the plot?

If so, the answer is: Don’t worry already, just write it.

But when I step back from this question and think a little harder, it’s not so cut and dried. After all, if we set out to write a hard hitting, tight read, we might well let the pacing goal influence the length of scenes. It might put us in a mind set that might suggest an even better story. There are lots of ways to tell a story, even your story. The choices the author makes are not inherently correct. So an author might reasonably ask, should I write ’em short or long?

Now, don’t get all organic on me. I believe you if you say the scene “just comes to you” or that you “uncover” the scene, buried (Stephen King-style) in the fertile ground of your mind. I get that, but is it best? Just because its natural doesn’t mean it’s a better scene, that it involves the reader more intensely. Civilization puts many constraints on what’s natural, and with good reason.

Immersion or drowning

The long, twisty chapter in a rich, colorful world can be seen as a lovely immersive experience, or it might just be too damn much when what the reader craves is moving forward.

Long chapters, immersive read.

Long chapters, immersive read.

I’m taking a poll here, not to come up with a right or wrong answer, but just because I’m curious what readers of my books think. (Or readers of SF/F anyway.) I tend to write longish chapters, leading the reader into the heart of things, providing what I hope is a vicarious experience, akin to being there.

If you follow my blog, you probably generally tolerate that style.

But are there times where you’d just like to say, come on, Kenyon, get a move on?

Just askin’.


9 Responses

  1. Barry says:

    I think either length has its own benefits, which you covered here. I’ve read books where the chapters are far too short and don’t go as in depth with the scene as I would like. Others I’ve read are too long. I’ve found when I write, my chapters tend to be on the shorter side and I wish I had made them longer. In conclusion, I haven’t said anything here of consequence to help with your survey.

  2. Terry Persun says:

    First of all, it probably depends on the book and the writing. Short chapters can leave me feeling like there isn’t much depth in the novel, yet long chapters can be slow sometimes. Short chapters, if done well, can shove a story forward only if you’re not just jumping from scene to scene and feel like you’re missing some key points. And, long chapters, if done well, give me the feel of the story, the character, and the immersion that some books need. Yeah, it depends on the book. I’ve done both, and I’m not even sure which could be said to work better.

  3. I write non-fiction, and I agree that long chapters can be tedious to the reader. My recent work was nearly 400 pages with some chapters nearing 50 pages. Realizing this book would perhaps be a bit too cumbersome even for the most avid non-fiction reader, I (1) removed about 140 pages and created a companion workbook to my work; (2) shortened chapters to no more than 25 pages by creating more chapters; and (3) broke the book into five parts. All of these in an effort to make the work more reader friendly for the consumer…

  4. I commented on the thread but will do so here. For me, I write regular chapters from 5k to no more than 7k. Shorter chapters are fine when warranted; as in if a complete situation within the plot structure can be wrapped up in less. I have done chapters as short as 1k, but that is rare.

    That there are scene changes within a chapter is also a matter of need and not formula. Anything occurring within a particular set of circumstances leading up to a change of mood or situation is included in that chapter. In essence, I let the story decide where breaks are required, but with my style of writing it turns out to be generally 5k to 7k….

  5. I like to read shorter chapters and I write what I like to read, when possible. No matter how enthralling a book may be, we still must take care of nature’s need. Eat, drink, bathroom and sleep. I like to leave a book at a chapter break. It is easier to come back to.

    Content is more important than length. I try to break a chapter just when the car bomb explodes. The reader is more likely to turn the page.

  6. Robin Leigh Morgan says:

    A chapter can be any length.

    There’s a classic chapter in Moby Dick which is only a few lines long with the word “THUMP” being repeated several times. The chapter takes up about half of a page.

  7. Ian Miller says:

    It depends on what the chapter is about. The question is interesting to me because the next book I have to copy edit has two huge chapters, which each have a commonality of the same people being in the same place for a large number of days with each chapter working towards a goal. If you separated chapters by days, there would be a huge number of small chapters. I usually get around this sort of thing by having moderate length chapters, but break up short sequences by gaps and “stars”. So, if anyone has a guide as to how to break up these sort of chapters, where there is a uniformity of purpose and location, but a sequence of acts, let me know.

  8. Kay says:

    I certainly don’t know of any principles of chapter design. I’ve always thought chapters fairly arbitrary. I like scenes with tight structure; it is clear to me when a scene begins and ends. Chapters, not at all. It seems to me that if your long chapters are truly not collapsible into dramatic units that have a “natural” break, then you are stuck with a long chapter. I find sometimes the dramatic climax of a book is one such long chapter.

  9. The short and long of chapters: I let my stories draw their own conclusions.

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