Units of Fiction IV: Attention and Focus (Chapters)
(This is the fourth post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I, Part II, Part III.)
As I said at the beginning, this whole series of posts sprang out of a conversation I was having with other writers about chapter length, which included some discussion of deciding where to start and end a chapter, i.e. where the breaks should come between them. After three posts mostly about other things, we at last come full circle back to the original question.
Length first, and with it, the question of attention span. Ty Frank — better known as one half of James. S.A. Corey, author of the Expanse series — said this in an interview with Lightspeed Magazine:
One of the things we learned is that three-thousand-word chapters is a fast pace that invites the reader to keep reading, because it seems like most people have the energy to read about four or five thousand words in one sitting. If you do three-thousand-word chapters, they read a chapter and a half, and most people aren’t going to be satisfied reading a chapter and a half, so we get email and tweets all the time from people saying, “I stayed up all night reading your book.” Well, there’s actually structural reasons why our books invite you to stay up all night reading them, some of which is in the chapter length.
I can definitely see merit to this. As I said back in the first post, short chapters make it very easy for readers to fall into the “snack trap” of saying, oh, just one more. On the other hand, a chapter break is a natural place to put the book down — so the more frequently those come, the more often you’re asking the reader “continue, Y/N?” Which means more opportunity for them to hit N and walk away.
So whether this works depends in part on how you end your chapters. I haven’t read any of the Expanse myself, though I’ve watched some of the TV show; I wouldn’t be surprised if Frank and Abraham also have a strong tendency to end their chapters on DUN DUN DUNNNNNN!!!! moments designed to make the reader feel like they have to know what happens next. As with scenes, though, doing that too often can become wearisome or even predictable. I’ve definitely read books where I can see the twists and cliffhangers coming from pages away, because I know there’s a chapter break coming up soon.
So let’s go back to those other aspects of how units can direct the reader’s attention: relationship between the component parts, and particular points of focus.
How long people can stay immersed is going to depend a lot on the reader. A fast reader or somebody with lots of free time might plow through twenty thousand words in a sitting, or more. A slower reader or someone reading on their commute may only get through two thousand or so. But I believe this is also a function of how the chapter is structured: that slower reader might plow through five thousand in a go if the entirety of it is one big set-piece event, rather than a collection of less interconnected scenes.
True story: for a while in my career I basically forgot how chapters even worked, because for four years I was writing the Onyx Court books, which are only divided into scenes and parts. When I started writing the Memoirs of Lady Trent, I had to re-learn this skill . . . and honestly, half the time I had to remember that chaptering was a thing I even needed to be doing in the first place. Every so often I would stop and wonder when the last time was that I put in a chapter break, only to discover I’d written twelve thousand words since then. Then I had to go back and retrofit the text with chapter divisions — and a large part of my decision-making process involved looking at the shape of the story and figuring out where it could most naturally be separated into more or less intraconnected blocks within the bounds of a certain wordcount range, rather than arbitrarily whacking it apart at numerical milestones.
These days I plan for that more, rather than doing it retroactively. When Alyc and I were drafting The Mask of Mirrors, we consciously aimed to structure the plot in a way that lent itself to chapters with a distinct identity. The result is that I can very easily tell you what chapter most events happen in, because a chapter isn’t just “whatever happened in words 21,000 to 24,000 of the book”: the first one is the launch of Ren’s con and her mark’s response; the second is the big social politics to-do at the Autumn Gloria; the third is where the characters go slumming in Lacewater; the fourth features maneuvering around the charter for the river numinat; etc. Not every chapter has a truly coherent theme to it — it would have warped the story if we tried to hold too strictly to that rule — but by and large, the boundaries of a chapter in that book mark out a group of related scenes and plots for the reader. Sometimes in ways that aren’t obvious up front . . . but that’s a tool in its own right, inviting the alert reader to guess at the possible interconnections hidden beneath the surface.
And that brings me to the question of points of focus. Where do you want the biggest impact to land? Chapters call the most strongly for end-loading as the default pattern, and are the most tolerant of a quieter start. You still want something of interest going on right away, of course, but it’s okay for that to be working at the smaller level of paragraph and scene structure, rather than needing the plot of the chapter to have an explosion (literal or metaphorical) right away. When the latter happens, it’s most frequently the result of the author breaking the usual nested structure of chapter > scene > paragraph by essentially dropping a chapter break into the middle of a scene. To borrow a familiar movie moment into prose, it’s the equivalent of ending the chapter on Darth Vader saying, “Luke, I am your father,” and then the reader turns the page and they’re still there at the base of Cloud City and the text is describing Luke’s disbelieving, horrified reaction. You can occasionally get away with the same thing as a scene break within a chapter — I think of that as being like a narrative blink — but mostly we do this as a chapter-separating device, a specific flavor of cliffhanger ending.
Most of the time, though, you’re not going to do that. Instead you’ll be looking at your scenes and weighing which one has the most exciting or intriguing conclusion, which one most tempts the reader into turning the page to see what happens next. And/or you’ll be considering the local through-line, and wrapping the chapter up when that line ends and a new one begins. If you’re working with multiple plotlines in multiple points of view, then you may have a high degree of freedom to sequence individual scenes as suits your chapter-building needs; a single-stranded plot with a single point of view will have much less. But you’ll also be working within the general confines of your chapter length, so that you don’t wind up with something two or three times the length of the one that came before — not without good reason, anyway.
Which means the structures, lengths, and break-points of scenes and chapters are interlocked, and furthermore those also interlock with the nature of what you’re writing. I’ve got an idea for a future novel that I want to have the general feel of a Jurassic Park-style thriller; as a result, I’ll be aiming for shorter chapters (around 3K), which also means I need shorter scenes (1000-1500 words, or big set-pieces that are 3K all on their own). For The Mask of Mirrors, the sweep and lushness and political intrigue means that Alyc and I regularly have scenes that are more like 2000-3000 words, and our chapters are very much on the long side, 8K and up. But that’s fine, because it gives us room to build up the larger structures of our plot, as opposed to telling a more linear story where it’s a cascading crisis from A to B to C.
Once that pattern is set, you start having to make decisions that take into account both the natural shape of the narrative and the unitary structure you want it to have. If you normally have three scenes of a reliably consistent length per chapter, but you’ve got a sequence of four scenes that forms a coherent whole and ends on a great bang, then you have to decide whether to group them into a longer chapter/split them into two shorter ones/make Scene 17 its own mini-sized chapter or whatever. Which you can do: I mentioned before that I had a short, single-scene chapter into the fifth book of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, for the same reason I sometimes write a single-sentence paragraph. If putting something at the beginning or end of a unit shines a spotlight on it, then making it be both the beginning and the end is like having all the spotlights converge on center stage. But in the hypothetical case of that four-scene arc, I might keep them together to make a longer chapter, because of the aforementioned idea of connection.
People who outline to a high degree can plan for this kind of thing. Those who figure out the story as they go along will need to be sensitive to its rhythm. Either way, playing with where you put your divisions can help you massage things into the shape you want: if an exciting chapter is getting way too long, maybe do an “I am your father” break at some key point in the middle. If a pair of closely related scenes feel really choppy, try narrating through the bridge between them to make a single scene instead. Move a conversation to a later chapter so that it’s rubbing shoulders with related ideas (assuming your timeline allows for that), rather than making it hang out on its own in a void of other things, especially if that levels out your chapter lengths in the process.
There aren’t any hard and fast rules for this, except the very few I mentioned before (like starting a new scene when you switch viewpoints in third limited). Mostly it’s a matter of getting a feel for it through practice, and through paying attention to how other authors do it. But hopefully these posts have offered up at least a few concrete principles to think about when making those decisions.