Do you write your chapters too long? Are you still stuck in the old days?
June 20, 2013
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.
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.