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Obsessing about chapter lengths in "Brickwell"

The latest neurosis that's keeping me from getting work done on my book is making sure the chapters are the right length.  It's yet another distraction that may not have a ton of payoff.

Chapter lengths, just like novel lengths in general, are totally arbitrary.  I've seen writers tackle them from a variety of methods, yet only a few stories have stood out where I can say, "Oh, the author really paid attention here."

The rule of thumb I think most people default to is little more than, "A chapter break signals the reader that it's okay to stop reading for awhile."  That's a good place to start from.  It's very functional, very practical.  It's a good default if you don't think chapter length should otherwise play a role in manipulating the audience's expectations.

A lot of writers - and I'm trying to be one of these - use chapter breaks the same way TV shows use commercial breaks.  You still signal your audience that it's okay to take a break if you need to take a leak or you want to grab a cup of tea or something, but you make sure you end on a nice stinger to encourage them to come back as soon as they can.

Some writers use chapter breaks in place of scene breaks.  If I'm being honest, I'm not too hot on this method.  You can end up with really short or seemingly pointless chapters that are like three paragraph cutaways just to let you know what the villain is up to or how much time is left on the time bomb or whatever.  Those little snippets can build a lot of tension when they happen directly after a scene break, but you lose that tension the second you give your reader the "It's okay to stop here" signal.  In fact, I've actually had that exact thing happen - there's few things that irritate me more with a book than when I resume reading after having set it down a few days ago and I see some short, dinky little chapter that has no impact whatsoever.  It feels like filler.

And then there are writers who tailor their chapter breaks purely according to how long they expect their readers' attention spans to be.  Especially kids' or YA books where each chapter is like four pages long.  Those books feel like they were written by committee.  I can just imagine some argument between the author and their editor - "No, Stacy, you can't put in that cool scene where the hero plays with some James Bond gadgets because the chapter's already three pages.  We need it to keep moving so kids feel like they're accomplishing something."

Still other writers just give no fucks.  I'm positive that's how Infinite Jest was put together.

The method I'm trying to get into is sort of a hybrid of the commercial break / scene break methods.  I'm trying to learn a bit from Hollywood in that respect.  Most movies make a point not to stay in the same scene for more than like 3-4 minutes - not because they don't respect you as an intelligent viewer (although some don't), but because the director knows you're likely to get bored if you're still watching somebody get ready for work by minute 5.  I really want my stories to be punchy like that.

The main challenge is the exposition-vs-plot conflict I lamented last week.  In "Brickwell" this is especially bugging me.  I want to use Chapter 2 to establish the setting (first day of high school in a quiet suburb) and supporting cast (classmates) for my protagonist.  But I also want Chapter 2 to end on a nice stinger so that you go, "Oh, no, shit just went down!  I need to keep reading!"  It's really hard to do that when you haven't gotten to your conflict yet.

The temptation is for me to make Chapter 2 longer until I can force some of that conflict in there.  But then it ends up being inconsistent with Chapters 1 and 3 which naturally break with scene transitions.  Plus, I don't want one chapter to be twenty pages long when all the rest are in the eight-to-ten range.

Sigh.  More stuff that I really shouldn't be obsessing about until it's time to start revising.  I'm starting to enjoy my rewrites more than anything else.