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Pacing – Chapter lengths

November 14th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
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This is one of the most difficult things I find to get right. Pacing is a skill that you can develop, but it’s very difficult to, because it can take an outsiders view to tell you if a story is going too fast, or too slow.

I was recently reading a book (yeah, great, what else are you going to do with a book, watch it?) Now I can’t remember if it was Bad Things by Michael Marshall, or whether it was something else, but this is the book that sticks in my mind, so it’s the example that I’ll use. Now I personally feel that Marshall is a master of pacing. The opening chapters are languid and easy going, not rushed at all, but I enjoy that. It puts you in a place, lets you get the feel of the characters, and helps settle you for the journey. And once things get underway you get swept up in the ride. Towards the end of the book, the chapters get snappier, shorter. Now, I’ve never really been a fan of tons of shorter chapters. Some books (such as those by Dan Brown) I check out to see how many chapters there are and when I note that there are over a hundred I roll my eyes. Yes, having lots of fast short chapters help you rush through the book, and keeps the pace up, but you don’t get time to see the characters, the situations, you’re along for the ride. It’s like watching a film and not being able to rewind to catch a moment you think you might have missed.

Alternatively, sometimes I’ll see a massive doorstop of a book with only twenty chapters and I know I’ll have to drag myself kicking and screaming through it.

Maybe it’s a psychological effect.

Anyway, back to the short chapters. It struck me just how effective it was at ratcheting up the tension. A whole host of chapters jostling together, switching between different characters, passing almost in real time, really gets you on the edge of your seat, and whenever that happens, I feel I have to push through all the way to the end. I get to the last few chapters and I cant just leave it, I have to read them all. If I leave the last two chapters say, I feel like its switching a movie off five minutes from the end, and coming back to it later.

The reason I bring this all up is due to the climax of my first major project I got finished. During its (extremely long) development, I’ve received advice from various people (including Matt), most especially about my chapter lengths. Initially my chapters were short, and jumpy, which didn’t create a good rhythm. Then I arrived at the climax. Due to the way my redrafting had gone, the climax ended up being a race against time. What I decided to do with this was drop the reader right in it with the main character, and not let up until the end. So something like the last fifth of the book is one long chapter.

Great. I didn’t have a problem with that. When I first wrote it, my fingers could barely keep up with my brain while I was getting it all down, and I felt the rush that the character was going through. I showed it to some people for feedback and what did they say? It was exhausting. Not because having all of this in one block slowed it down in any way, but because it was relentless, they felt they needed time to breathe. And in retrospect, I can understand. Shorter, snappier chapters (especially when you switch between several characters all working towards the same goal) can keep the pace right up there, but without the associated exhaustion. Now, all I have to do is figure out how to break up this finale without my mind snapping…