When I was writing my middle-grade novel, I didn’t pay much attention to page counts and chapter length. Mainly, chapters were broken up by scenes.
But during my hiatus — after getting to The End — I finished reading “Barkbelly” by Cat Weatherill and was amazed at how short her chapters were and how many she had: most chapters have only 2 to 3 pages, 5 seemed to be a max, and the book has 63 chapters in a total of 309 pages.
A quick look at some of the other books on my shelf and she seems to be the exception: The sixth Harry Potter book has 30 chapters, the first of which is 18 pages, with a total 652 pages; “The Lightning Thief,” the first in the Percy Jackson series, has 22 chapters and the first is 15 pages with a total 375 pages; “Nightmare Academy” has 17 chapters, the first being 21 pages with a total 310 pages. “Eragon” has 59 chapters, the first only 3 pages, the second 10, for a total of 497 pages.
What does this mean? Well, first and foremost, do what’s right for the story. But second, feel free to experiment.
“Barkbelly” got me thinking about chapter breaks in a new way. Not that I think I have to limit chapters to five pages, but that I don’t have to use them to show a change in a scene. In “Lightning Thief,” Rick Riordan often changed the scene in the middle of a chapter and started a new chapter in the middle of a scene — but when something really exciting was happening. It reminded me of my days studying screenwriting, especially for the TV. TV shows are really formulaic — even more than you think. But one thing they all have in common is placing a major plot turning point or exciting moment right before the commercial break to ensure their audience will stay on that channel.
Books, I would say especially children’s books, should do the same. “Barkbelly” is wonderfully written and very sweet, but it’s a simple story that intrigues because of the oddness of the characters and situations more than the action. Short chapters, I suspect, keep young readers interested and feeling as though they’re moving forward. Weatherill split her chapters by scene breaks, mostly, so her scenes are short, but she could have had multiple scenes in chapters (in a few cases she does, but then the scene is only a few paragraphs showing a transition between the last scene and the next).
Following Riordan’s method of ending the scenes at WOW parts, right in the thick of the action, keeps readers coming back to find out what will happen in the rest of the scene, much less the rest of the book.
As readers, we often think chapters are good stopping places, be it bedtime or whatever. Parents might tell their kids they can read one or two chapters before they go to bed. Having the ends of those chapters right in the middle of the action practically guarantees that readers won’t want to put the book down, and if they do, it’ll be all they think about until they pick up the book again.
Weatherill kept her chapters short perhaps recognizing that kids have short attention spans and by finishing a chapter, they feel invested in a book and as though they have accomplished something. Plus, she ended some chapters with a harbinger: “If he had known about the shock he would receive the next morning, he wouldn’t have slept at all” ends chapter 54. Not for use when you’re writing in the protagonist’s point of view, of course.
I had one or two chapter breaks like Riordan’s in my novel, but most were scene changes, not unlike Weatherill’s but with much longer scenes. During my revision now, I’m looking at these differently. When I typed The End, I had 20 chapters and about 206 pages. I’ve already found some interesting places to split the long scenes in early chapters and have added those as chapter breaks. I’m probably at about 24 chapters now and I’m only on chapter 8, which used to be in the middle of chapter 6. I don’t have any chapter quota I feel I have to hit. My goal is merely to make sure I have the most exciting chapter break possible.
How do you determine when to break for a new chapter?