Several weeks ago Asma asked a question related to the length of a piece of writing. She suggested (Asma, please correct me if I got this wrong) that long is daunting. I posted a comment advising her not to worry about length. Good short is as good as good long.

Since then I’ve been thinking about length. Before I’d had anything published, in the mid-1990s when I was working on Ella Enchanted, I was told by my mentor at a conference that my book had better be under two hundred pages, and Ella was longer than that. Maybe that was the rule at the time, but nowadays very long books seem to be fine. Publishers buy them, and they make their way into readers hearts.

The shortest novel for kids that I know of is Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, which is sixty-four pages short and won a Newbery award. Of course there is debate about whether it’s a novel or a novella, and I don’t know the answer. I’d guess that you usually need at least 125 pages for a book to be without a doubt a novel.

There is one law about length: Do not pad.

With one exception. If you have a school assignment, like a paper that has to be ten pages long or you will flunk and won’t be able to get into college and will be doomed to a life of drudgery and penury (look it up, kids), and if you do your best, but when you get to page nine-and-a-half, you have exhausted everything you have learned about the subject, then you have my blessing to pad, to string adjectives together and pile on the adverbs, to make your handwriting wide and rounded or to find a font, like this one, that takes up a lot of space. But aside from such an extreme situation, don’t. If your book turns out to be a novella rather than a novel or your short story is super short and yet unfolds fully, celebrate and forget about length.

A truism is that a book (or a story) should be as long as it takes, long enough to tell the tale, and no more. This is less than helpful. “Cinderella,” for example, told as a classic fairy tale, takes up only a few pages. Her story – and most stories – can be summarized in several sentences. Yet I wrote it as a novel, and I found out recently that two more novelized versions have just come out.

When I’m in the midst of writing, I never know how long a book is going to be. More than once I’ve thought I had a trilogy going, and sometimes I’ve worried that my story wasn’t complex enough for a whole book. I even fret that a blog post won’t be long enough to be satisfying.

Satisfaction is the key to length. Your main character shouldn’t solve each of her problems too quickly or your reader will be disappointed. On the other hand, if she tries again and again, and her attempts are similar, the reader may become as frustrated as she is. For instance, I based Cinderellis and the Glass Hill on a fairy tale called “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” The hero of the story has to ride a horse to the top of – you guessed it – a glass hill in order to win the princess. Conveniently, he has tamed three marvelous horses, each of which arrived with a full suit of armor, copper armor, silver, and gold. The horses with the copper armor and silver armor are able to climb partway but fail to make it to the top, but the horse with golden armor pulls off the feat. The reader roots for the hero at each attempt, but doesn’t really want him to make it on the first two tries, because the excitement would be over too soon. Success on the third effort is just right. If there were seventeen horses and seventeen attempts, we would want to take a hammer to the hill.

Three is often a pleasing number, so much so that it’s called “the rule of three.” Cinderella goes to the ball three times. The evil stepmother visits Snow White in the forest three times. The queen guesses Rumpelstiltskin’s name three times.

But, despite the rule, to always create three attempts is formulaic. Sometimes your hero should succeed on his first shot and sometimes on the fifth, and sometimes not at all, at least for the time being. Variety adds richness and interest – and length.

In the upcoming third book about the fairies of Neverland, Gwendolyn, the human character, is searching for the fairies, who are hiding from her. She finds the spot where she thinks they live and speaks to them, but they don’t show themselves. She reveals the gifts she’s brought, which also fails to call them forth, so she looks for a dove who would know where they are, but the dove is hiding too. After wandering to other possible places, she sleeps pathetically alone in the forest. When she wakes up, she returns to the original location, gets angry, and throws a mermaid’s lute. This act brings out a fairy. I count five attempts, the right number in this case.

Later in the story Gwendolyn asks Peter Pan for advice to help her help the fairies. She does this once, and it’s enough.

Prompt: It’s early in your story. Your main character has to find the magic cell phone that will let him start his quest. If you don’t like fantasy, it’s a real cell phone, which he needs so he can reach someone who will give him a clue. The phone is hidden in a public garden. Write his attempts to find the cell phone. Vary the way he tries. Who helps him? Who gets in the way? If you like, turn the exercise into a story. Don’t worry about length. Have fun, and save what you write.

The End of a Chapter

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!