Chapter Length

Chapter length has become one of those unexpected but suddenly important questions in the novel I’m writing with my sister.

As an editor, chapter length comes up often enough, in both fiction and nonfiction. You know, that book on parenting you’re editing where every chapter is 12–15 pages long—except chapter 6, which for some reason is only 5 pages and feels out of place. Or the conversation I was recently having with a suspense writer who completed James Patterson’s MasterClass and was telling me about the effectiveness of short chapters.

My sister and I have been on the other side of the spectrum. We’ll have a phone chat about “What needs to happen in this chapter anyway?” Afterward I’ll write up a solid page of notes about plot points, character arcs, POVs, themes.

And then a few weeks later I’ll have a 35-page chapter on my hands.

“We can cut stuff in editing,” we keep on texting to each other. Or, “We’ll just break it down into smaller chapters.”

We’re getting close enough to having the first draft done that we can see it will be 12–14 chapters long. But I mean, the manuscript will be at least 110,000 words. Some of the chapters are literally the size of novellas.

More recently my sister has suggested keeping the long chapters but introducing part numbers within each chapter. I’ve seen this before in fantasy (I’m looking at you, Scott Lynch), but not often. It doesn’t seem very in right now, which as an unpublished author makes me nervous.

It was during one of our “we can rechunk chapters later” text sessions that I wrote, “Wait, so are we actually writing a 12-part miniseries, and each chapter is an episode with several commercial breaks?” To which we both responded, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Intersecting TV structure and pacing with genre fiction is something I’ve talked about with friends for years at this point, but not something I’ve ever actually tried intentionally. I have a friend who wants to write a mystery series of 10 novellas, each novella covering one case and strictly following the plot formula for procedural TV. My brother has talked about writing a 6-book steampunk series where each book is a snappy 180 pages that includes “episodes” instead of chapters.

It makes me think of the time I was discussing Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop in a graduate literature course, and the professor pointed out how Waugh’s clipped dialogue, with hardly any dialogue tags, was very popular during his time (see also Hemingway) and reflected the rise of telephones. Fiction was responding to the technologies of the day and integrating the patterns of those communication forms. It’s an obvious point to make, but TV of course has an impact on the older form of novel writing.

We haven’t decided if we’re going to stick with the 12-episode series structure for our book, but at least we’re having a productive conversation about structure and pacing. And we have a while before we have to make any decisions anyway.

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