Do you write your chapters too long? Are you still stuck in the old days?

James Patterson knows how to keep chapter short. Photograph: Adweek
James Patterson knows how to keep chapters short. Photograph: Adweek

We are, I believe, living in a world of brevity.

Newscasts are two-minute sound bites, and that’s for the long news stories.

USA Today wants more stories and shorter stories without any jumps to inside pages.

Why?

Readers don’t jump anymore.

Because of the digital eBook revolution, novels are shorter than ever before. Those previous 150,000-word books have now been whittled down to 60,000 words, and most readers never miss the ones cut and tossed aside.

But, so often, chapters in a book remain as long as they ever were. Some habits are just hard to break.

Is that wise?

I’m not so sure.

Several years ago, I interviewed James Patterson for a magazine article. He was the first big-time, mainstream author to dramatically shorten his chapters, working to keep each of them down to three or four pages.

Patterson knew a secret that other writers hadn’t figured out yet.

Patterson was playing a game of psychology with the imagination of the reader.

He had been the creative director for a major New York advertising firm.

He knew the importance of short copy and the art of delivering copy with a punch.

Grab their attention.

Tell them what you want them to know.

Then get out.

It worked in advertising, and Patterson was convinced that it would work in literature as well.

He was right.

This is the way Patterson explained it: “Let’s say a reader is sitting around at night reading one of my books. He comes to the end of a chapter. It’s late, but he thinks, well, the next chapter is only four pages long, and I have time for that. And the next chapter is only three pages long, and he certainly has time to read that. Pretty soon, it’s midnight, and he’s finished the book. If the next chapter had been twenty pages long, the reader would think, well, that’s too long to start tonight. I’ll read it later, maybe tomorrow. And it might be days or weeks before he picks the book up again. Of course, he may get busy and never get back to the book. I can’t afford to take that chance. My goal is to keep the reader reading. Short chapters keep him reading.”

It makes sense.

Patterson also makes sure that each chapter is similar to a miniature book.

It has a strong first paragraph.

It has tension.

It has conflict.

It has a hook at the end.

Frankly, it works.

I don’t think James Patterson is a great writer of literary prose. He doesn’t either. He told me so. But he is a great storyteller.

And great stories are told one chapter at a time.

Patterson keeps his short.

It’s not a bad way to write.

Secrets of the Dead Amazon coverPlease click the book cover to read more about my books on Amazon. These days, I keep my chapters short.

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  • Caleb, All anyone has to do to verify how well that formula works is to look at Patterson’s sales. In a sense, he is writing serialized fiction. He just packages all the serial chapters into one book and releases it as a full-blown novel. I have read a number of Patterson’s books and always enjoy the drive of the story.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You said it. It’s all about the story. I used to think it was style and poetic descriptions, but have come to realize that nobody cares about anything but the story. Deliver it short and sweet.

  • I’m holding Anna Karenina in my hands most chapters are 2 to 3 pages in length. Way to go Tolstoy! Personally, I don’t care what the length is if the book is compelling. But for the younger group of reader I would say they want to be in and out of a story quickly.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Leslie,you and I love “the book.” The new generation loves “the story.” Don’t waste time telling it. Go ahead. Get to the end. And let’s move on. It is hard for us to change, but it’s necessary.

  • Caleb, you (and Patterson) hit the truth perfectly for today’s reader, and it will be even more so for the reader of tomorrow. Generation Z as the babies born mid 1990’s to about 2010 are the first born knowing the world only at an internet speed, so shorter is better if we want our books to last. There are always exceptions to the rule, and the Harry Potter series will be one. Thanks for the great post, and I certainly was one of those, “one more chapter” Patterson readers!
    Cheers!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I agree, Mary Kathryn. Here is the first rule for writing for the “me, too” generation. Give them what they want, not what you want them to have.

  • Darlene Jones

    My daughter keeps telling me she likes my books, but likes my blog bits better because they are short. She claims that short is what people (at least those her age) want nowadays.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      We all need to listen to your daughter. She knows. We can latch onto what she knows or be left in the dust.

  • Tyrean Martinson

    Nice post! I agree that short chapters work. I think it kind of goes with Edgar Allen Poe’s idea of the best stories being written in one sitting. I write each chapter in one sitting. That means they can’t be too long. Maybe it isn’t great literature, but then, if it worked for Poe, and it works for Patterson, maybe it just works and we don’t have to worry about the whole “literature” label.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You and I both share the same approach. I sit down with one scene in mind and write each short chapter, I hope, like a self-contained short story. Good comment on the “literature” label as well.

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