Monday, February 4, 2008

DD Debate: Chapters Short or Long?

Well, with all the political debates going on, I figured The Dashner Dude needed to get in on the act. Don't worry, no politics here. Something much more important: should chapters be short or long? (kidding, of course, on the "much more important" part)

I'd really like everyone to chime in on this. It seems like a small thing, but it's not. This is vital to writers and readers alike, and I'd like your opinion. After I give mine.

Many of my respected colleagues have a very strong opinion that chapters should NOT be short (by the way, I am talking specifically about books for middle grade and young adult here). Their reasoning is that coming to the end of a chapter gives a kid an excuse to quit reading, and therefore if the chapters are really short no kid will ever finish the book.

I disagree.

I think it's the opposite. If a kid gets to the end of a chapter, and KNOWS the next one is a doozy, long long long, there's no chance on Earth he or she is going to keep reading. However, if the kid knows the next chapter is SHORT, he or she will think to themselves, ooh, just one more, giddyup.

I've received hundreds of emails and letters from readers. Without one single exception, not one, I've had many say they love my short chapters. Of course, that's not a scientific study, because the kids who write me are those who like my books. I doubt someone would write just to say, your chapters are too short. But still. Not one? Ever?

I have matured in my chapter structure. They got a little too short in Jimmy Fincher. And some of the "cliff hanger" endings were a little contrived. I think I'm much better at creating solid chapter endings, but still making the reader want to read the next one. And the next one. And the next one.

I guess I should define short and long. My chapters are now between 1,500 and 2,500 words. That's between 6 and 10 pages in the final book, roughly. For example, my new book coming out has 51 chapters and it's just over 400 pages. Harry Potter has long chapters, 20 or more pages per chapter. (Yikes, if we based it just on that, I might as well concede now!) Longer chapters obviously worked very well for JK Rowling. But was it DESPITE the long chapters because the story was so good? Maybe.

Anyway, sound off. As soon as my book comes out and the blog grows, I WILL create a forum. But until then, we must debate in the comments. So, what do you think? Short or long? Let me know.

WRITING UPDATE: I'm now at 89,632 words on Book 2. The End is in sight, and it's bittersweet as always.

BOOK UPDATE: I got my copies of the audio for Book 1. They look awesome! (I already told you they sound awesome. Kudos again to Mark Wright.) The release date is now less than one month away. As my son would say, sweet biscuits.


Emmie-Lew said...

Short. For SURE. Especially from a Mom who likes to read outloud to her kids. I don't want to read to them when each chapter is 20+ pages- but I'm more than happy to when they are 15 or less. Not that I actually count the pages, you know- but anyway- I agree with your logic 100%. Keep 'em short and sweet!

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are exactly right. Short chapters all the way. It is such a terrible feeling after going through one 23 page chapter to get to the end and know you're in for yet another 23 pages. 12 +/- pages are perfectly good tops.

Anonymous said...

I like short chapters but not too short. I like to know the story is moving quickly. That way I can talk myself into reading just one more chapter before going to bed at night. Consider a best-selling author like Dan Brown. Love his fast-paced books due in part to short chapters.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

I vote for short. It is so frustrating when you are part-way through a long chapter and there is no good place to stop. But when the chapters are short, it is always tempting to read just one more

LaFemmeSimple said...

I have to go with short'ish.

I loved HP, but yeah...I'd be left with the longing to read more, but the exhaustion of already reading SO MUCH.

Don said...

Short chapters all the way.

I've always been a "read whenever I can" kind of guy, and when it's time to stop I'll often give myself the go-ahead to hurry and finish a short chapter. Otherwise, I'll just throw the bookmark in at the next paragraph break.

If kids are looking for an excuse to put the book down, then there are bigger problems than chapter length to consider.

Luisa Perkins said...

I really think it depends on the pacing of the book.

Personally, I prefer longer chapters, and I did even as a child. Of course, I often chose my books at the library based on which was the fattest on the shelf. I read fast, and I wanted (and still want) my escape to last a good, long time.

Tamra Norton said...

I thnk it's okay to mix it up a bit, but for me, a 20 page chapter seems too long for a kids book (unless you're JKR, I guess). I read aloud to my kids every night, and one recent book had a 33 page second-to-the-last chapter. I just wanted the thing to end, to be honest.

As for writing, I'm with you--6 to 8 pages or so.

Macotar said...

As a long time read-aloud guy. I have to say that shorter is easier on the pipes. However, I believe a chapter should SEEM short. I've read books where 5 pages for a chapter was way too long. I've also read others that seemed all too short 30 pages later. I think character and story movement are far more important to every reader young and old alike than actual length of chapter. The reader should feel like the chapter belongs closed where it is.

As far as reading incentive goes. that's a horrible reason to cut off or extend a chapter. If a kid is counting the pages, they aren't reading the book. If they are, might I suggest something a little more suitable for the ADD set; perhaps 1 fish 2 fish?

Thanks again for your kind words!

James Dashner said...

Good stuff so far. You guys make some good points, and it looks like short chapters are winning the battle. Luisa is the only long chapter person.

I'm just a fast-paced kind of guy. I obviously LOVE to read, but I despise long chapters with every ounce of my soul.

Except for Stephen King. But he breaks them up with little mini sections, which I love, too.

Shaunda said...

I agree with Don. If a reader is starting to look at length, while reading, then there are other problems with the story.

I like short. But long works too, especially if the action is kept moving, and especially if the paragraphs aren't too long in moving the story forward. My 9-yo son gets turned off by books where the chapters look ominously long on the page for him.

I guess we like lots of white space on the page in this house -- kind of feels like there's place to breathe, or absorb the story, while reading the book.

Unknown said...

This is such perfect timing, James. I've been wondering that very thing. I think I agree with short chapters, but I'm going to throw another question at you. Do you combine short scenes into your chapter then, or usually keep it one scene per chapter?

Cherie said...

However, if the kid knows the next chapter is SHORT, he or she will think to themselves, ooh, just one more, giddyup.

I completely 100% agree with the statement you made above. :)

James Dashner said...

Jaime, good question. And this is important. I never, never break a chapter just to make it short. If it needs to be a little longer to come to a good break, so be it.

But my writing style lends itself naturally to short chapters. But some scenes will go over more than one chapter. The breaks will come at big REVEAL moments or an APPEARANCE or something like that.

On the other hand, sometimes more than one scene or POV shifts will be within one chapter, particularly when I'm really trying to pick up the pace.

The perfect example of that is the climax chapters of the upcoming book. This is where my writing is heavily influenced, structure-wise, by people like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy, etc. You'll have to see if you like it when the book comes out!

Ron Simpson said...

I have always been of the opinion a chapter should only be as long as it NEEDS to be.
I do not agree with the idea that a chapter should be designed as short or long. As far as I am concerned each chapter should have a beginning and an end. It should tell a complete part of the story. If that part needs one page, so be it. If it needs 20, yet again, so be it. I have read plenty of books that I love that go along with this concept. Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series, George RR Martin's The Song of Fire and Ice series and any of David Gemmell's books are good examples. The story has a flow and pace to it, but some scenes just need to be by themselves and merrit their own chapter.

Suzy - Q said...

That's all very enlightening. I realize I'm a little behind the times in this conversation, but I really like Ron Simpson's comment, as long as it needs to be! How true is that! Keep it natural. Rowling did that, in a lot of ways, I think. Not Every single chapter of hers was long, and I don't think they were long on purpose, it was just what she needed to cover.

But enough defending her. Having said that, as a general rule, I do like short chapters in children's fiction, at least. Books, though I eat them up now, have always been intimidating to me and the more breaks, the less intimidating. Not every kid is a bookworm. I know, I work at a bookstore!

That's right, I'll be selling Dashner's book when it comes out! A proud proud thing that is! :)

B said...

either short chapters or no chapters at all with a type of paragraphing similiar to in cold blood(i know it has chapters but they're about 90 pages each) seem to be the most easily readable types.

a mixture of long and short is by far the worst though because there's nothing more off putting than a 40 page chapter after a 4 page one.

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