Do you like it when books have short chapters?

A few years back (2009, I believe) I was at work and got into a discussion about chapter length. An author my publishing team was working with wanted to intentionally make his chapters short. His thought was that he would retain more male readers and more infrequent readers if his chapters were short. Our publishing team agreed and we went for it. Throughout the marketing campaign of that book I heard positive comments from the reviewers about the short chapters. People generally said that it was great to have bite-sized chunks of content (relatively speaking) because they were less likely to feel bogged down by the book. Since then we’ve published numerous books that have short chapters with the same goals in mind.

At the time, I agreed with my team (and I still do) though I didn’t really get it on a personal level. At that point, long chapters had never bothered me. When I want to be finished I just mark my page and stop reading. No big deal. And I had no idea what the author meant when he said “we’ll retain more male readers with shorter chapters.” Are men supposed to be poorer readers than women? I’m a man and an avid reader, so this reason for short chapters didn’t really resonate.

A few years prior to this discussion (2007, if memory serves) I worked at a bookstore. At that time a bunch of the staff were reading Steven James’ crime fiction series, The Patrick Bower Files. One of my coworkers who almost never read fiction ended up reading the series and was completed, and unusually enamored with it. While he gushed about it each morning he would say, “You know what I love about that book? It has short chapters! Then I can get through a bunch of little chapters before bed and feel like I’ve made real headway.” As I mentioned, this man almost never read fiction. So, while I heard what he said, I chalked it up to a lifetime spent reading theology, history, and other monograph-worthy topics.

20000 leaguesFast forward to today. I recently started reading Jules Verne’s classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the SeaI’ve never read it before. In fact I’ve not read much of Jules Verne at all. I’m only 40 pages in but I’m enjoying it so far. And do you know what? The chapters are very short. Some of them are only three pages, and I love it. More often than not I’m too tired to do much reading before bed anymore. Though I have a penchant for reading classic fiction, I must admit that I’m in a different place than I was in 2009. Long chapters, especially in older works, put me off sometimes. I grown when I see them because I know it will be ages (seemingly) before I finish them. I still doubt that my new found love of short chapters has anything to do with my gender, but perhaps there is something to that too. (Yeah, right.)

Do you prefer short chapters? What about in your own writing? Do you intentionally shoot for short chapters? 

Since 2009 I’ve learned that publishers think about chapter length all the time. It’s an important part of shaping a book.

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16 thoughts on “Do you like it when books have short chapters?

  1. Susie Finkbeiner

    I’m a lady and a lover of classic fiction. However, I’ve always preferred shorter chapters. I don’t like to leave a chapter half way through. It’s a much more enjoyable experience for me when I am able to use a chapter break as my reading break.

    As a writer, I like to compose shorter chapters to keep action moving. Longer sometimes tends to be more slow moving which isn’t my writing style.

    I blame Steinbeck.

    Reply
  2. joshmosey

    Two of my favorite authors are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Kurt Vonnegut uses very short chapters, and many times, he includes breaks within the chapters. Terry Pratchett, at least in his Discworld series, doesn’t use chapters at all. None. That said, I do prefer short chapters, but I think this has more to do with my attention span than my gender.

    Reply
      1. Andrew Rogers Post author

        But haven’t you done some fantasy writing? Were you aiming for short chapters there? And the question I really want to know your thoughts on: Why is okay for Fantasy to have long chapters and not other genres?

      2. joshmosey

        I think authors have to keep the audience in mind and write chapters that fit the audience. It is okay for Fantasy novels to have long chapters because the typical fantasy reader is on the nerd-end of the spectrum and knows how to stick with something ad nauseum. Fluff books would be better served by short chapters given that their readers probably don’t read many books and don’t want to put in much investment. The fantasy that I’ve written was geared more to the YA market, and young adults may not enjoy chapters as long as typical Fantasy readers do. I think writers need to write something that will entertain themselves first, but their should always be consideration for who the readers are and what they would prefer (except for plot points, with those, writers can twist things in painful ways for readers as long as the writer can offer an acceptable end to the novel).

      3. Andrew Rogers Post author

        I agree with your statements here about writing something you like, writing something in genre, and keeping the readers interests in mind.

        You made some observations here that made me chuckle (“Fluff books would be better served by short chapters given that their readers probably don’t read many books and don’t want to put in much investment.”). I think you should write a post about perceived “markets” or perceived reader groups. There’s a post in their somewhere…

  3. Erin Bartels

    Interesting post. I think a chapter should end where it naturally ends. It’s good to end on something that makes the reader want to get to the next chapter (what happens next?) and that’s what guides my writing. I thus far have tended to have what I would say are probably pretty average length chapters, but they often have a scene break in them where another writer might just decide to end the chapter. But to me, it didn’t seem like the best spot to do so. Those breaks are nice places to put a book down. When I started reading Mrs. Dalloway one night I was getting sleepy and flipping ahead to see when this insanely long first chapter was going to end, only to find that there were no chapters at all–just one long narrative. So I saved it for a solo trip to Denver where I’d have plenty of uninterrupted time in airports, planes, and hotel rooms and I LOVED the reading experience. But in most of real life, shorter chapters are probably helpful for many readers with little time and a shrinking attention span.

    Reply
    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      Erin – Are you writing mostly narrative or mostly non-narrative? I agree with you about letting chapters end where they should naturally end, especially when writing narrative. To some degree, I think that wisdom applies to non-narrative writing too, though I think with non-narrative writing you might be able to be more intentional about chapter length

      Reply
  4. Amelia Parlette Rhodes

    Was the author mentioned in the post writing fiction or non-fiction? Fiction chapter lengths don’t bother me. If I’m engrossed in a fiction book I’ll typically finish it in 1-3 days anyway. (I read very fast.) However, in non-fiction works I prefer shorter chapters. They take me longer to read because I need to think and process the material so I can begin to apply it (except for true memoirs, I read those more like fiction). The thought about shorter chapters for men is interesting too. My publisher wanted to market my book as short, easy-to-read chapters. We were going for the busy woman, maybe she has kids, maybe she has a full-time job, but she definitely doesn’t have a lot of time to read. Best compliments I’ve received – “I can’t tell you the last time I finished a book, but I finished yours!” And the funniest one, coming from a mama of 5 little ones, “Your chapters are bathroom length!” I think that’s a new target – chapters short enough for a mama to read during a bathroom break (often the only privacy and quiet she gets – if she’s lucky!). Great thoughts, Andrew!

    Reply
    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      The author mentioned above was writing non-fiction to a busy pastor or leader type. His comments about men preferring short chapters seemed both related and unrelated. That still leaves me scratching my head.

      20K Leagues under the Sea is obviously fiction, as is the Stephen James book referenced above. Both with very short chapters.

      “Bathroom length” – Nice! I think that’s a reality that most of encounter at one point or another. :)

      Reply
      1. Amelia Parlette Rhodes

        I don’t think that gender has much to do with it. Busyness, schedules, type of reading they are used to – I think plays into it more. Someone suggested a title “Isn’t it Time for a Bathroom Break?” Hmmm…probably not.

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