After my last post, Freak of Nature asked how long a chapter should be and how many chapters a book should have. I wrote back that a book can have any number of chapters, and each one can be almost any length. But I’ve been thinking that there’s more to say on the subject.
As a child I was a major reader, the kind who reads while brushing her teeth. I read anything, no matter how long or short. But after I became a writer I became less of a reader – much less, for a bunch of reasons, like editing as I read and reading books I didn’t like to keep up with children’s lit. Lately I’ve been getting back to pleasure reading, but it’s still not the same as when I was a bookworm.
The result, I think, is that I’m now a reluctant reader. I won’t pick up a long book unless it’s by an author I love or unless someone I trust has sworn it’s a great book. I always check the number of pages before I start reading, and I recheck occasionally as I go along. I look ahead to see how many pages are left in the chapter I’m reading too, and I’m disheartened if the chapter ending is a long way off, even if I’m enjoying the book. I like to see a break coming up.
When I get to the break I’m likely to continue reading if the chapter ends on an exciting note, or if I know an important moment is approaching. But I’m happy for that little breather.
No editor has ever said a word to me about the length of my chapters, maybe because before I send a manuscript in I even the chapters out, a bit. Or maybe editors don’t care. Any editors reading this and care to weigh in?
Ever is an exception to my evening out. In Ever, the chapters pass back and forth between two first-person narrators, chapter length determined by whose perspective predominates at a particular moment. As a result, Ever is my book with both the longest and shortest chapters. For example, while Kezi is in the underworld, Olus, the other POV character has little to do, so his chapters are short and hers long.
But for most of my books, when I’ve finish a few drafts and before my editor sees a word, I page through. If a chapter is shorter than five pages or longer than thirteen, I adjust it. This is just me; I suspect many writers don’t think about chapter length, and I don’t believe book quality is affected. Anybody want to give an opinion?
The fix for a too short chapter isn’t as simple as gluing two chapters together, and the cure for a long one isn’t a quick chop down the middle. There is the very important matter of chapter endings.
A good chapter ending makes the reader want to – have to – keep reading. More than anywhere else in a book, the chapter ending has to compel or invite the reader forward, because that page turn is such an invitation to turn off the flashlight under the covers or to answer all those text messages that have been piling up.
There is one fundamental principle for chapter endings: something should always be amiss. If one problem has been solved, another should rise from the horizon or come forward from the background. (Time out. I stated the above as an absolute, but there are no absolutes. Probably someone somewhere has written an exciting book in which nothing goes wrong. Maybe you have.)
How to achieve those irresistible final lines? I’ve gone through my not-yet-published Fairies and the Quest for Never Land for ways:
A cliff-hanger. A chapter in Fairies ends with my main character, Gwendolyn, falling out of the sky toward a circle of sharks with their mouths open.
But it may be impossible to orchestrate a crisis every seven or so pages. There are other techniques:
A quiet chapter ending. This works only if big trouble is looming. For example, if your main character expects to be humiliated in school the next day, you can end the preceding chapter with her falling asleep after some tossing and turning.
Worry. If your main character, whom the reader cares about, is worried, the reader will worry too. In Fairies, the second chapter ends with Gwendolyn worrying that Peter Pan will forget to come for her. The worries of a secondary sympathetic character also will do. In Fairies, I ended nine out of thirty-two chapters with a worry.
The villain plotting or doing something awful, which is unbeknownst to your main character. Be careful, though. This is possible to show only from an omniscient third-person POV.
The beginning of a major moment. Peter does come for Gwendolyn. I end his arrival chapter at the moment before the two meet.
A single powerful word. Chapter Eight of Fairies ends “Then a new miracle began.” Miracle is the magic word. Of course what follows has to live up to the promise, in this case has to be a miracle, even if a minor one.
An emotional moment. Suppose your main character has just unwittingly insulted a friend. The chapter can end when he’s realized what he’s done, even before the friend has reacted – especially before the friend reacts – because anticipation is a crucial factor in chapter endings.
A surprise. The readers’ suspicions are lulled. Things have been going pretty well. Someone shrieks. End of chapter.
A threat. You can imagine how this would work.
The absolute worst happens. End the chapter. But the absolute worst can’t happen many times in a single book. You can get away with a few absolute worsts, but probably not many, unless you’re writing comedy.
I’m sure there are more terrific ways to end a chapter, and you’ll find ones that particularly suit your book. Be on the lookout for them as you write. Try going through your manuscript-in-progress to check out the endings you already have. See if you can ratchet them up a notch or two if they need it. Save the results, and have fun!