Many fiction writers (especially early on in their careers) seem to agonize over chapter lengths. How long should each chapter run? Can I get away with a one-page chapter, or with a very lengthy one? I’m here to alleviate your fears and concerns by letting you in on a secret: there isn’t a perfect chapter length. In short, the story should dictate the length of your chapters and, consequently, the length of the novel itself.
If you’ve ever read a novel by James Patterson, you know that he typically writes short chapters – sometimes less than two pages long – with one or two punchy scenes in each. Other writers use each chapter as a step toward the development of their theme, usually leading to longer chapters where the next chapter begins precisely where the other one left off. Then there’s the non-stop action and sex approach where each chapter includes outrageous scenes of explosions, car chases, and sex. This approach ends each chapter with some sort of cliffhanger and then moves to another character as the next chapter starts.
A while back, I wrote about the importance of opening lines in fiction books. While the most important opening line is the very first one in the book, every chapter should have a kick-ass opening too. This is especially true for crime thrillers and suspense novels.
Anatomy of a Great Chapter in Crime Fiction Novels
As a crime fiction author, I usually angle any writing advice I give toward that genre. So, keep in mind that chapters in other genres (i.e. romance or historical fiction) will probably look a bit different upon analysis.
- Gateway Drug Allure – Each chapter should keep the reader wanting more and more. Each one is like a gateway drug that drives the hook in deeper, addicting the reader to the world you’ve created and the fascinating people in it. If a chapter doesn’t add an extra layer of oomph to suck the reader further in, it’s not good enough.
- Authoritative Voice – Don’t let your writing become soggy and limp in any chapter, but especially in the first one. Use a fully present voice that exudes confidence and has an assertive air. Stay away from flowery, bloated descriptions. Keep moving forward, full bore, giving the reader the entire force of your writing prowess so she gets more deeply entrenched in the characters and the story with each chapter.
- Conflict – Think of conflict as reader candy. Whether it’s emotional or physical, big or small, each chapter should have some candy to feed to the reader. The drama of conflict adds layers of interest and takes the reader down an alley full of danger and foreboding. It’s what opens a reader’s heart and mind to makes her give a rat’s ass about the story.
- Dialogue – Don’t just fill your chapter full of description and bloated scene development. That’s all very important, but the reader can’t love or hate someone they don’t really know. Readers get to know characters through dialogue same as you do in real life. You talk to people to get to know them.
- Tight and To the Point – Keep your writing tight and to the point. Don’t go on and on. Say what you need to say to swiftly move the plot along and keep readers turning pages.
Remember, regardless of the elements it contains, every chapter should draw the reader further into the story. If your chapter pulls the reader in a little more with each page, you’ve done it right – no matter the length. With suspense and thrillers, you’ve got to keep the story moving at a fast pace so readers stay enthralled to the very end. That’s why crime novels tend to have shorter chapters than books in some other genres. Check out all three novels in my Jack Davis Thriller Series by grabbing a copy of Triple Threat. If you love fast-paced crime books that keep you turning pages, you’ll love the Jack Davis thrillers.
Share your thoughts with me. Do you like shorter chapters or longer ones with more description and backstory in them?
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