The Art of the Short Chapter

As both a writer and a reader, short chapters are a win-win. I read many genres but no matter what I’m reading (mystery, thriller, drama, chick-lit, etc.), the short chapter fits my schedule. If I have extra time, I can read JUST ONE MORE and just one more and just one more… If not, I can usually squeeze in a whole chapter and will look forward to the next chance to read another. I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how chapters have gotten shorter and why we readers like it that way.

Photo from montrealradio.blogspot

During the early 1900s, folks gathered around a warm fire while someone read out loud (and this was called entertainment!). Later, families could be found sitting in a circle around a radio and listening to a serial or some other program. Today, the world moves faster than that and entertainment has changed. Obviously, we no longer sit around a radio or read entire novels out loud, but judging by the sheer number of audiobooks and podcasts out there, listening to stories hasn’t lost its appeal. I wonder sometimes if this is because we can listen in snippets between the grocery store and the pediatrician’s office. It’s convenient. It fits our schedule. It’s short! (or long if we want it to be).

One of the writing podcasts I truly enjoy is The BestSeller Experiment. Two funny men (both named Mark) have set out to write and publish a bestseller in a year. Along the way, they’re interviewing many successful writers to find out how they’ve done it. “When do you write?” “Do you have word count goals?” “How many books did you write before your bestseller?” The list of questions goes on and the writers are all wonderful. However, a comment and subject from one of those writers struck me as particularly true in today’s world of storytelling. Joe Hill, a bestselling horror/suspense author, began to talk about short chapters and that he considers it critical to writing a page turner. I found myself nodding as I listened and then he said something I didn’t expect. He wrote a chapter in one of his novels that had only one sentence. The book in question, Heart-Shaped Box, was published with that once sentence chapter and was a bestseller. Of course, it doesn’t matter how quick the chapters are if the story doesn’t hold the reader’s attention, but, wow I thought, one sentence! This is not to say he was recommending everyone do that and neither am I, but to me, it’s further evidence that in most genre writing at least, short is sweet.

Many suspense and thriller writers have recognized this to be true. I’ve noticed in the last couple of years an increased number of books with fifty + chapters. Short, however, does not mean sweet if nothing happens. One thing that hasn’t changed is that within each chapter and scene, something has to happen to move the story along or advance the plot. If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter whether your chapter is 50 words, 500, words, or 5000 words. What’s important is making them count.

I can’t really say if the appeal of short is the result of our busy lives, the need for increased stimulation, or just that the art of storytelling is always expanding and changing, but I can say that I love it. I love writing short chapters and I love reading them. I’m going to have to read Heart-Shaped Box just to read that one sentence chapter.

In my Detective Cancini series, I have always stuck to short chapters. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the things readers tell me they like about my books whether it’s through reviews or in person at book clubs. Like me, they enjoy the short chapters and find themselves staying up to read JUST ONE MORE. See? Win-win!

P.S. As a note, Joe Hill–for anyone who didn’t already know–is the son of Stephen King.

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