Best-selling author James Patterson famously writes very short chapters, short enough to be read in a few minutes. Many readers like this. In part, it’s because a chapter or a few can be read between stops on the commuter train, or for ten minutes before bed, or on a coffee break. It also suits the genre: fast action, short chapters, focused on one event.
But I write historical fiction (of a sort), and this genre tends to longer chapters. The hero’s journey also underlies all my books, and again, this structure beloved of epic fantasy tends not to be expressed in short chapters. In my first trilogy, Empire’s Legacy, all three books have a chapter length around 5000 words. My new release, Empire’s Reckoning, has an average chapter length of just under 1700 words. Why the change?
I’ll start by saying it had nothing to do with Patterson’s reasons. The new book is still a hero’s journey, but it’s told in two timelines – the present and 14 years earlier, and with a structure that involves the protagonist recalling events from the past timeline. Memory is key to this story, and memories rarely occur in long unbroken segments. By breaking what the protagonist is remembering into shorter sections, it’s a better mirror of how memory works. (It also cues the reader that in each of these chapters, what the protagonist is recalling has its own value. In a long chapter, it would be easier for an important point to be lost in the flow.)
There’s a second reason, too. The narrator of Empire’s Reckoning is a scáeli, a position based on the skalds of Scandinavian society: storytellers, poets and musicians. By dividing the story into discrete sections, I was purposely mirroring the structure of a Scandinavian saga[i], because that is how Sorley, the narrator, would tell it.
That’s how I used chapter structure for my purposes. What about reader reaction? Well, none of the reviews have complained, so far! More interestingly, three have used the world ‘saga’ in their write-ups. While I know this has a second meaning – a long family history – in literature, I can’t help wonder if the structure triggered this reference. Reader response is not always conscious.
I’ve just beta read another historical fiction book of almost the exact length of mine, and with the same number of chapters – and it’s written that way for almost the same reason. A two-timeline structure, involving a journey, and stories being told on that journey. There’s a classic story structure being mirrored here, too (I’ll give you a hint: the stories are told each night) and it worked extremely well, even though it’s unusual for the genre.
So, when you’re thinking about your chapter length, give some thought not just to Patterson’s reasons – they are completely valid, especially in today’s fast-paced world – but to how it reflects and serves the mood and message and even the characters of your story. I can’t imagine, for example, The Lord of The Rings being written in short chapters: it would go against the epic nature of the story. That The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a chapter of one paragraph also makes perfect sense (as much as anything does, in a Douglas Adams book) given the nature of that tale.
What examples come to mind for you of the chapter length strengthening – or weakening – the mood or theme of a novel?
[i] Or at least in translation. When I took the sagas in school, this is what the translations looked like. I realize their original structure may well have been different, and differently presented.