Deciding how long your chapters run

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While I first worked on Viral Times I began to wonder about the right length for the book’s chapters. At first it was easy — less than the page limit for the groups where I was workshopping the early writing.

But along the way I read many novels with much shorter chapters. Those in All the King’s Men are among the thickest I’ve hacked my way through. (Worth the effort, by the way, if you can get past the first 50 pages. Soon to be a remake of the 1948 classic movie, too.)

Orson Scott Card, Hugo-winning science fiction novelist and short story writer, has weighed in on chapter length. At his Uncle Orson’s Writing Class, he’s given us novelists a blank check to do whatever we want with our chapter lengths:

There are no rules. Just remember that each chapter break provides benefits — a sense of closure, of progress, of movement through the book — and imposes costs — a detachment from the story, a place where the book can be set down, an interruption in the onward flow. So you decide for yourself what rhythm and pace you want to establish, and when the costs of a chapter break are worth the benefits.

By the way, there are also “parts” and “volumes,” which are longer than chapters and include them. These are used only when needed — they impose an even deeper division and greater cost, but imply a much stronger shift in time, place, or viewpoint, so sometimes these, too, are worth it.

Viral Times has three parts, as I’ve plotted it out now. It’s a big story, so it better be good.

Page-turners like The DaVinci Code use tiny chapters to increase the pace of the story. Bigger is not necessarily better for chapters. You write the ends of chapters for a “bounce” to the next part of the story — bouncing like the emotional rush you see ending segments of commercial TV or the close of miniseries parts.

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