Friday, May 01, 2015

The End is -- Shoot, Too Soon: What to Do With a Chapter That's Too Short

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

This week’s Refresher Friday is a revised look at dealing with a too-short chapter.

We all know how critical it is to have the right chapter ending. We want something unexpected, something that grabs reader attention and makes them desperate to turn the page. We usually recognize it when we reach it in our writing.

But what happens when we hit that perfect ending, and it's only halfway through what the target chapter size is?

For some folks this is a no brainer, because they'll just end the chapter there and worry about how it fits later (if at all). But others prefer a general consistency of chapter length, and this even helps them while pacing the novel. Too many short chapters means the major turning points won’t hit at the right spots and might even indicate a flaw in the plot.

To help figure out if a chapter is really too short or just the right length, here are a few options:

1. Examine how you can flesh out the chapter so it ends closer to the target word count.

If you know you tend to be light on one area (such as description, or dialog) this might be the nudge you need to add that element in. Or you might decide to extend the scene and add more conflict, or make the problem harder overall. You could even have a character be reflective or consider what’s happening more through internalization or a conversation with another character.

Pros: The chapter is the size you intended. You get to develop areas you might not have done if you hadn't been pressed to take another look.

Cons: You might be adding stuff just to add.

If you’re only adding trivial details—empty dialog, cute little jokes, random thoughts that do nothing to advance the scene or character—that’s a red flag all you’re doing is dragging the scene out. It might be just fine at the current length.

2. Use it as a scene ending instead and keep going.

Scene breaks are a wonderful thing, so a great hook line could be a great spot to switch scenes. If the scene changes location or time right after that perfect ending line, a scene break is a natural element to add. Not only do you end on a compelling note, but the break helps keep the pace moving and encourages readers to turn the page.

Pros: You don't have to do anything.

Cons: A scene break might feel awkward or throw off something else about the story, such as the pace or flow.

If breaking the scene hurts the story, just write the chapter and let the word count fall where it may. Just because it feels off now doesn’t mean the solution won’t present it self when the draft is done. You can always restructure the chapters so they flow better later. You can also add more (or cut some) to a previous chapter and shift scene around.

3. Don't end, just keep writing.

A well-crafted hook line can feel like the perfect chapter ending, but that doesn’t mean the chapter ought to end there. Maybe the goal hasn’t been resolved yet, or the reveal hasn’t occurred, and ending here would make the chapter feel pointless. Moving on is good for the chapter and the novel.

Pros: You don't have to do anything and you’ll have solid hooks in the middle of the chapter to keep the narrative drive moving.

Cons: The chapter feels off because it reads as if it should have ended there but doesn't.

This might not bother readers since they didn't know you meant to end it there and couldn’t. But something might still feel off because everything builds toward that moment, and then—whoops, it peaks, then tension drops, yet it keeps going. What happens next could feel tacked on at best, anticlimactic at worst.

4. Let the chapter end where it ends.

There’s no rule that says chapters need to be a certain length, or that every chapter in a novel needs to be similar in size. If that’s the perfect ending for a chapter, so be it and start the next chapter.

Pros: You don't have to do anything.

Cons: You have a short chapter that sticks out.

If a novel has a variety of chapter lengths, a short chapter probably won’t stand out or be noticed. But if the average chapter size is twenty-three pages, and you have one lone chapter with only three pages, it could get noticed and jar readers out of the story. It might be better to have a slightly longer chapter than to draw attention to a too-short one.

Not every writer (or reader) will be sensitive to where a chapter ends. Some writers don't even break the novel into chapters until it's done. If you don't care how many words each chapter has, don't sweat it. But if you do care, and it bugs you when the chapters don't fall out as planned, these tips might help you hit your goals.

Do you care what size your chapters are? Do you worry if one is too long or too short?

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. Excellent post! There are no real rules, I suppose it's what works best for each writer, but I am with you, I like a little structure therefore I like my chapters to be around the same as one another, that doesn't mean that I don't want the chapter to end has a bit of a cliffhanger, I just need to learn to adjust the body of the chapter instead!

  2. Great post and tips. I like to aim for some consistency in the length, but I also make sure I'm not adding fluff.

  3. As a reader, I was never really bothered by shorter chapters, and it doesn't really seem to affect me as a writer, either. I don’t think there’s a set way to deal with this sort of thing, since the variance in reader attitudes is so large. Personally, I prefer a scene/chapter to stop where it stops. If a writer hits that point and keeps going, it might annoy me because it feels like they’re adding fluff, or trying to hard to fit an outline. Considering how often some writers end up with high word counts, ending where it ends is a good way to reduce that problem. I like long books, but I want them to be long because that’s what the story needs, not to meet some artificial quota per chapter or something.

    I think it really depends on what your goal is with chapters, though. Most readers and writers I’ve seen seem to see it as mostly a convenient structure to leave off. It’s been endlessly argued whether it’s better to leave off in a lull or a gale. I tend to like lulls better, because otherwise I might have trouble putting the book down. When I read later than I should, I tend to plow through ‘til the next chapter. That extra white space gives me permission to stop.

    As far as pacing goes, chapters don’t affect me much. They only approximate the pacing insofar as chapter breaks tend to be inserted in a lull or gale in terms of tension, so I think it’s better to structure the chapters around the pacing, rather than structure the pacing around the chapters.

  4. this is quite timely for me as I'm currently looking at that with my editor. I had a few chapters twice the length of most, and debated on splitting them in two for consistency.
    When I did it, I found I had to rewrite the endings to make them hang a bit. I think it worked because you add a little more suspence and question which is usually a good thing.

    I so enjoy your blog.

  5. Thanks, all!

    Jen, there really are no rules. I have friends who write in ways that would drive me crazy, and they can't understand how I write the way I do, LOL. But it all works for each of us. I tried all kinds of things until I found what worked for me.

    Atsiko, I like to mix lulls and gales myself. I think always doing one or the others gets repetitive after a while. And even when there's a lull, I do try to end on something enticing to keep readers reading. A quieter mystery posed, or a hint or secret. I don't *want* readers putting the book down, even though I've stayed up way too late reading myself more than once. But those are always the books I wind up telling everyone about how good they were.

    I agree about structuring the chapters around the pacing, but I find that my writing style (and how I pace) tends to sync up with my chapter size. Most times, when I end up short (or long) there's something funky going on I need to address. I think I chose this chapter size because that's what I naturally write to when I'm building a scene or a series of scenes to an event. I usually have scenes of 500, 1000 and 1500 words (those get mixed up, it's not always that format), so there are these waves of tension. It wasn't anything I consciously planned, just something I've been noticing.

  6. Chapters end precisely when they mean to end, they are neither too long, nor too short. And with that in mind I let them end when they need to, teasing the reader on.

  7. Janice,

    In my experience, a book being put down is not as dangerous as the writerly mythos makes it out to be. If I really don't want to finish a book, I put it away, not down. If I'm multi-tasking, I might put the book down overy other minute. It's a real pain when I miss something important because I didn't want to stop reading. Or look up at a good break to see the sun rising. (I need my beauty sleep.)

  8. Ah, see I'm just the opposite. The books I don't reluctantly put down might sit there for a long time. I've let books sit and picked up new ones (and read them in one sitting) before I've gone back. The longer a book sits, the less chance of me finishing it. The ones that kept me up at night or made me miss something are the ones I tell folks about the most.

    Everyone's different of course, but I want there to always be something hanging, even in a lull, to bring the reader back, because I know that's what keeps *me* reading.

    I do, however, have a separate to read pile I keep on my nightstand for night time reading. Those are always books that are light and fluffy and fun and don't have the "must read all now" endings. Those I read when I can't sleep or just want to wind down, and don't want to get sucked into a long book.

    What kind of ending depends a lot of the genre, now that I think about it. I don't expect my chick lit stuff to keep me reading all night, but I do want my thrillers to do it.

  9. I only occasionally leaves books sitting for a long time.

    This would be so much easier if all readers were the same.
    (In habits, not genre.)

  10. It would, but then think of all the great books that would never have been published. The variety is what makes it all work :)

  11. I think shorter chapters can be extremely effective, IF they're sprinkled evenly throughout the book (for instance, a POV change). However, I do aim for consistency in chapter length. Sometimes there can be two "cliffhangers" in a chapter, so you just write past the first one into that second, final hook.

  12. When a chapter runs too short, I usually have to back and add details. I have to work hard to get them into the story and can easily add another full page just of them.

  13. Linda, I always have to add those as well :)

  14. Excellent advice, especially the last part. I've never heard a reader complain that a chapter was too short.

  15. Charmaine, I actually have, but only when there were a lot of very short chapters that made the pacing all funky. So I think that's more a pacing issue than a chapter length issue :)

  16. Great advice! When I'm writing a middle grade novel, I probably pay more attention to chapter lengths, since those chapters are usually shorter than those of a young adult or adult novel. In the last young adult novel I wrote, the chapter lengths varied. Toward the end when the main characters were on the run, the chapters were shorter and faster paced.

  17. I've read books with insanely different chapter lengths -- Station Eleven comes to mind -- and it works just fine. Although just curious -- what length do you guys find is "standard", in terms of manuscript pages?

    1. It varies widely. For me, 10-15 pages seems average for my YA novels. A good friend of mine writes more like 30 pages per chapter for her adult fantasy novels. A mystery friend writes about 10-12 for her cozies.

      You can try checking a dozen novels in your genre and see what they average out to to find a "standard" page size per chapter. It won't be a rule, but it could give you a general idea of what's typical for that genre.

  18. Great advice. I just have one more to add to your list. Look at the previous chapter and see if this new one isn't a better ending. Sometimes I find myself ending chapters before they should, and I end up finding a better ending in the next chapter.

  19. I used to obsess quite a bit over my chapters all being the same length. And they were really too long. I pretty much wrote the book and then measured off where each chapter break should be.

    I am now becoming more confident in letting my chapters end where appropriate. I insert chapter breaks as I am drafting, and if it doesn't feel right on my re-reads, I change them. The pacing is a lot more natural.

    1. That's what I do as well. Glad you found a process that works for you now ;)

  20. As a reader, if I like what I'm reading, I don't really notice if any given chapter is 10 pages or 11 pages long. To me, it's about how the chapter ends, not where. In my books, the chapters vary widely. Some are longer because there are a series of events. Ex: something's happening/progressing in a given place over the course of several weeks. For those chapters, I have breaks in them for each week & it may take 30 pages. Others may be done after 5 pages & the plot has moved on. Until reading this blog, I had no idea writers paced their chapters to specific word counts. Live & learn.

    1. Some do, some don't. It's a tool like any other and I put it out there for folks to use as they see fit. If you prefer to write to what size chapter feels right to you then do that. Chapters tend to have similar lengths, but as I said, not every book or writers does that.