Writers: Why Chapter Length Matters More than You Think
Make your books more unputdownable and keep your readers coming back
The indie author Chris Fox coined the term ‘potato chip chapters’ for easily-digestible book chapters of a certain size. He then compared some classic books to his own and gave a compelling case for writing in smaller chunks.
I’m here to echo the same sentiment.
Whether you like it or not we’re in the Netflix era of binge-attention. Our work-life balance is no longer a balance. It’s just all work. 24/7/365. When we escape we like to binge, big-time. Just like the old Queen song — we want it all and we want it now.
Everything’s on all the time. We’re go, go, go. Attention spans are short and our readers have more, really good options than ever before.
It’s no longer a choice between this great book here and maybe a lesser book over here. There are tens of thousands of great books within arms-reach of your reader at all times.
As writers, it might sound odd, but we’re not in the book business, we’re in the time business. Books are relatively cheap, no matter the genre. The valuable thing we’re buying is the reader’s time. She can’t get her time back after reading a boring book.
When you’re in the time business you better write something the reader won’t regret
It’s better to get hate mail from readers who stayed up too late or missed their dentist’s appointments, than the other kind of hate mail.
In the olden days of writing it was fine to drone-on for tens of thousands of words per chapter, with little thought for the reader’s attention span. This is especially rampant in epic fantasy and sci-fi.
Today we’ve got media attacking our attention from every direction — young and old, city and country. And all us writers want to do is sell more books to our readers, keeping them happy as long as we can.
Shorter chapters make for great stopping point.
Maybe your reader has ten minutes at night set-aside for reading. Maybe your reader’s got a short train commute twice a day. When we divide our chapters into smaller, potato chip bites, we give our readers a great place to stick the bookmark.
But a funny thing happens when we give our readers a place to pause…
…they keep reading.
There’s no science behind this, but anecdotally, when you give your reader a well-written, cliffhanger of a scene, and you end the chapter leaving her wanting to know more, she’ll keep reading.
Pro tip: you want your readers to have trouble putting your book down. This is a baked-in feature we should engineer into all our writing.
By giving your reader an easy-out you also combat her short attention span simultaneously. You gave her a great place to pause and the small gesture will compel her to read-on.
What’s the magic chapter length?
Chris Fox uses between 1,000 and 2,000 words. James Patterson (the most-selling author in the world) is famous for his tiny chapter of a page and a half — around 250–500 words.
I use the target average of 1,500 words per chapter. If I’m writing a novel, this gives me 40 chapters and 70,000 words when I’m done. Ideally, you want to give your reader something she knows she can consume in under 10 minutes.
This 10-minute time window is the perfect break throughout the day.
I like to think of these potato chip chapters as the snooze button of reading. They’re so easy to consume, when we finish we say to ourselves “just one more chapter… just one more chapter.”
When we give our readers a great place to stop reading we simultaneously make them want to keep reading. Movie directors don’t have this problem, but I’ve heard many writers get feedback from readers saying “your book was so good I read the whole thing!” As if that wasn’t the norm.
When we give our readers short chapters, designed well, we make it easy for them to re-enter the story.
Even if they don’t have time to keep reading, we left them in a place where it’s easy to jump back in.
TV series have two minute vignettes in the beginning of each episode to help the viewer remember what happened last episode. With short chapters, the recap is a page-flip away.
Conversely, when we write epic-length chapters — 10,000 words long, there’s nowhere to pause. The reader gets exhausted, shoves the bookmark in the middle of the scene and may have to re-read half the chapter to jog her memory.
When I write a chapter I like to picture a single episode of a TV show. The chapter should stand alone — a complete scene. There’s a beginning, middle, and end — a crisis, conflict, and resolution — with a tiny question or cliffhanger at the end.
This works for both fiction and non-fiction. There’s nothing worse than a non-fiction book that doesn’t engage the reader to keep reading. Just because we write how-to, memoir, or historical information doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write a page-turner.
Some of the best non-fiction writers in the world are masters at using elements of good fiction to keep readers engaged (Michael Lewis and Ben Mezrich, for example).
How to make your non-fiction a page-turner and turn your readers into raving fansmedium.com
Honestly, I wrote this story more as a plea than something informational. I have one of the shortest attention spans of anyone I know, yet I’m able to read 100 books per year.
The books I enjoy use this technique of short chapters.
I write in short chapters. I need more to read. I hope you’ll use shorter chapters too. And if I have no attention span, but can’t put my book down, maybe your reader will do the same.
We want to read what you’ve written, but we don’t want to wait for you to get to the good stuff. We’ve got a pile of exiting books before us. What’s it going to be? Your book or the other ones?
We’re waiting for you.