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Chapter Length / Splits

Merlyn

So, this may have been asked before. I have been breaking my chapters out by a day passing so far. Until now there were fewer scenes to each chapter as I am trying to avoid the "write every little detail of the character's life" type of story. My story has now progressed that I need many more scenes to occur in a day for the characters.

My question is which do you think is better? New chapters that are potentially twice or more as long the the previous 13 chapters, or splitting a single day in story into multiple chapters?

Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Merlyn

I personally don't like long chapters and came upon that very same issue a day or two ago with my WIP novel.

My chapters in the novel (I'm guessing) range between 1,500–2,500 words. I wrote a chapter over 6,000 words. The only place it made sense to break it into two chapters was something like 2k and 4k. So that's what I did.

So even if your chapters are longer or shorter than mine, the point is how does your long chapter compare to the others? If you write 10,000 word chapters and this one is 20,000, the principle is the same as my case.

I don't mind chapters of different lengths. I don't like long chapters.

Replies:   Merlyn
Merlyn

@Switch Blayde

That was my concern. My chapters so far average between 6-9K words, this current one is already on track to potentially be in the 11-13 range, which I know isn't that much more. But as I look at my outline it looks like more and more as the action speeds up and increases to the climax.

So dislike of long chapters noted, I have a place I can divide the current chapter that is pretty uneven, but it might work better for future chapters.

I know I need to write to suit and tell the story well, but I don't like the idea of structure and layout detracting from the story either.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Merlyn

but I don't like the idea of structure and layout detracting from the story either.


Absolutely agree. In my first novel, I had a chapter over 6,000 words which was much larger than the other ones. I found a place to split it into 2 chapters so they would both be about 3,000 words. An ideal place for word count. But I didn't split the chapter in two. It just felt wrong to do it.

Ernest Bywater

Here's where I differ from many others. I write stories in chapters and sub-chapter where I break them up based on their content. However, when I post to SoL I break the story up into groups of chapter and cub-chapters to have between 5,000 to 10,000 words with a nominal target of 8,000 words in each posting. The actual break point is matched to the end of a chapter or sub-chapter. I find this system gives me a lot more flexibility in chapter size and what is in a chapter. But I don't start posting until after I finish the story, so that also has and effect on what I can do.

Crumbly Writer

The 'day in the life' chapters are handy for new authors, but they quickly start growing to unreasonable sizes, as they tend to include more and more minor (i.e. relatively unimportant) details (think of all the 3 "S" stories).

When it becomes a problem, you may want to consider alternatives. The other most common one is 'scenes'. This is where you recount everything that happens in a single scene, then you break, jump to a new location, possibly with other people, and start again, breaking each scene with a simple dividing line.

You can also write chapters that focus on specific episodes, sometimes a single long scene, or multiple related scenes. These are called 'episodic chapters', and you'll need to rethink how you write, as it requires tackling a particular topic in each chapter (like a particular encounter with someone, trouble with the law, an embarrassing situation and it's fallout, etc.)

I also ran into the 'this is too damn long' dilemma when my chapters began running in the 14,000 word threshold. What I did (then) was to simply break it at a logical breakpoint, and I labeled the chapters "A Long Day in Memphis (Part I)" and "A Long Day in Memphis (Part II)". It's crude, but it works.

Ross at Play

Merlyn, it is with some trepidation that I write this post - I do not want to discourage a new author.
Two of the most successful authors on the site (based on books sold elsewhere) have both suggested one chapter for one day in the story is not a good idea. I would urge you to use 'episodic chapters' in your future stories.
Crumbly Writer said:

You can also write chapters that focus on specific episodes, sometimes a single long scene, or multiple related scenes. These are called 'episodic chapters', and you'll need to rethink how you write, as it requires tackling a particular topic in each chapter

Ernest Bywater said:

I write stories in chapters and sub-chapter where I break them up based on their content.

I cringe in horror at the very thought of stories with one day equals one chapter.
It seems to me a gimmick which serves no real purpose. Serving no real purpose does not matter to me, but it does once the gimmick starts controlling the content of a story. I cannot see how that would not happen once you start targeting any range for chapter lengths.
Knowing you are doing that, my doubts are:
- You say you're trying to avoid the writing every little detail of the character's life, but on days when nothing much of interest happens, surely you'll end up including boring details I would rather not read, just to reach your desired chapter length.
- And the reverse, surely you'll end up cutting details from interesting scenes to avoid exceeding your maximum chapter length. If one scene is worth 10,000 words then that is how long it should be, and it deserves to be in a chapter on its own.
So my comment, intended only as an FYI before you start writing your next story, is to simply say I would refuse to start reading your current story - just because you are writing it with one chapter per day. I take that as prima facie evidence you are not basing your decisions on what to include in the story entirely on whether the content warrants inclusion. There may not be many readers who would feel this way, but I doubt I'm the only one.
* *
I wish you a lot of success and enjoyment in your future as an author.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
awnlee jawking

@Merlyn

The breaking of a story into chapters according to the passage of a day has been discussed several times by my writers' group. The course junkies say they've been taught it's a bad idea, especially if the chapter starts with the alarm ringing, the protagonist getting up, showering and shaving and dressing, then having breakfast. In real life, everybody does that. It's not interesting and it doesn't further the story.

Having said that, writing stories in diary format, where each entry spans exactly one day, seems to be growing in popularity. I think that's a very specific form of fiction and your story is better than that.

As to chapter length, as a SOL reader I prefer shortish chapters. Not as short as some of mine, but also not long enough to split over a page. I also appreciate consistency in length.

AJ

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ross at Play

I would amend my last comment after this comment by AJ:

writing stories in diary format ... that's a very specific form of fiction

I agree diary format is an entirely different form of fiction compared to narratives following an MC for one day, but with a diary format I would not expect entries of 6K words or longer every day.
Unlike AJ, I do not appreciate consistency in chapter length: I think chapter length should be driven by the content, just avoid extremely long or short chapters.
However, readers on SOL definitely prefer authors make posts of a substantial length whenever they do post. I have no problem with some short chapters, so long as multiple chapters are posted at once if needed for the total length to satisfy readers' expectations.

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

Depending on what's happening 6,000 words for the events of a day are easily possible. If an author wishes to use a daily diary format and it's an extremely busy day then it can be cut up into Morning, Afternoon, Evening, and Night or Events during the day and use as many as needs be to do the job. Two examples of this are:

Power Tool

https://storiesonline.net/s/52276:72051

and Ed's New Life

https://storiesonline.net/s/15563:186551/eds-new-life-toc

Replies:   Crumbly Writer  Joe Long
Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

Merlyn, it is with some trepidation that I write this post - I do not want to discourage a new author.
Two of the most successful authors on the site (based on books sold elsewhere) have both suggested one chapter for one day in the story is not a good idea. I would urge you to use 'episodic chapters' in your future stories.

Since Ross is quoting me, I'll add a caveat to Ross's advice. While episodic chapters are a better way of dealing with stories, by and large, it's often used by new authors as they struggle to figure out what works. In that case, I wouldn't suggest abandoning it too soon, as it takes a little while to get a feel for it.

Instead, take it under advisement, but continue with your current story as you are—there's no sense upsetting your current writing style—but you'll want to gradually shift away from the 'day-in-the-life' style as you learn it's many pitfalls (this being only one).

When I specified how I once broke a 14,000 word file in two, that was the LAST time I ever did that. I switched over to episodic chapters immediately afterwards.

Another drawback (to both styles) is chapter sizes. Since DITL chapters tend to be longer (as you include more of the minutia of daily life), episodic chapters tend to be shorter.

Back in the days when I wrote DITL chapters, my chapter sizes ranged from 4,000 to 14,000 words. When I switched over to episodic chapters, they fell to 1,500 to 9,000 words. My general aim is 6,000 words per chapter, which was easy to reach with DITL chapters, while it's rarer now. Keep that in mind as you decide which to adapt.

But the biggest advantage of episodic chapters is that you focus more on the story, rather than 'just another day' in an ongoing story. You tend to drop anything which doesn't advance the story vs. including the things the character faces each day. Generally, that'll make your stories easier to read, and make the story progression more natural (i.e. less 'forced').

Replies:   Ross at Play
Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

Having said that, writing stories in diary format, where each entry spans exactly one day, seems to be growing in popularity. I think that's a very specific form of fiction and your story is better than that.

I've noticed the same thing, but came to a very different conclusion. For me, that simply reflects more new authors, who haven't yet figured out how to structure more complex stories yet, rather than an increase in that style of storytelling. To determine that, you'd have to figure out how many best-selling novels use each style, to see how their use affects sales overall.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

If an author wishes to use a daily diary format and it's an extremely busy day then it can be cut up into Morning, Afternoon, Evening, and Night or Events during the day and use as many as needs be to do the job.

Even if you use the 'diary format', there's nothing that says each chapter needs to be a full day. First of all, you want your story to move forward, so if nothing happens in the story for two weeks, you don't want to continue churning out daily chapters. You simply skip forward to the next subsequent event.

Secondly, as Ernest suggests, you don't need to include the full day. You can also start at any time in the day. If you're writing about someone in school, a natural break would be the school day (focused on the latest trauma/adventure, rather than the next day) and the next could focus on after-school activities, or evening dates or, for adventure stories, adventures or research into what the characters are facing.

Thinking along those lines will naturally lead you to writing episodic day-in-the-life chapters, which is a decent middle-ground, as you'll cut much of the fat while still maintaining the diary format.

Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Since Ross is quoting me, I'll add a caveat to Ross's advice ... Instead, take it under advisement, but continue with your current story as you are

That is what I was suggesting too. I suggested a change in style for your next story, implying it was best to "continue with your current story as you are".

Switch Blayde
Updated:

I never wrote a diary format story, but if nothing happens in a day, I wouldn't write about that day. You might even write, "Dear Diary, I can't believe it's been a whole week since I wrote anything, but..." if the story is written by addressing the diary. If not, leave out the "Dear Diary" part. And if something happens in a day that's short, I'd have more than one day in a chapter. It could be scene changes or some other technique.

Now what if it's a busy day that takes a lot of words? That's what Merlyn is asking. Do you have a chapter much larger than the others or do you split it into two?

If there's a good breaking point, I'd split it into two. If not, I'm (and the reader) is stuck with a long chapter.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

If there's a good breaking point, I'd split it into two. If not, I'm (and the reader) is stuck with a long chapter.

That was the example where I broke a 'one theme' day into two chapters, by breaking it into two separate chapters. However, it was such an awkward transition, I switched to purely episodic chapters in my next book.

REP

I had a problem with a chapter that I posted in which a large section of text was lost; mea culpa. I got feedback about the chapter breaking off in the middle of a scene and starting in the middle of a different scene. Then I had a short chapter, all content present, and I got feedback asking if something was missing because the chapter was significantly shorter than what I normally wrote. Some readers notice and will comment on varying chapter lengths.

So far it seems like two types of chapter formatting have discussed – diary and episodic. I'm not sure what you would call the chapter format I used in my 'Sauce for the Gander'. It isn't exactly diary format, which seems to be defined above as 1 day = 1 chapter. It isn't episodic, which seems to be defined as 1 episode = 1 chapter or sometimes several short episodes in one chapter. Episodic also seems to imply a story can have multiple episodes, but each episode starts and ends as a contiguous passage that can span several days or chapters before the next episode begins.

In the story, I have the wife of the MC writing the story as the MC's biography using his journals and conversations she had with him while he was alive as her source; the POV is the MC using primarily 1st person. The story she writes cites dates from the journal and addresses the main events that happened on each date. Some of the chapters cover several days. At one point, a day is split across about 3 chapters; it was a busy day and the events of that day are told in detail. In a number of cases, there are gaps between dates because nothing significant happened on those dates. An episode may begin in one chapter without resolution and reappear several chapters later.

Is there a name/label for this style of storytelling and chapter formatting?

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@REP

So far it seems like two types of chapter formatting have discussed – diary and episodic. I'm not sure what you would call the chapter format I used in my 'Sauce for the Gander'. It isn't exactly diary format, which seems to be defined above as 1 day = 1 chapter. It isn't episodic, which seems to be defined as 1 episode = 1 chapter or sometimes several short episodes in one chapter. Episodic also seems to imply a story can have multiple episodes, but each episode starts and ends as a contiguous passage that can span several days or chapters before the next episode begins.

Episodic simply means that the chapter (or section) only focuses on a single episode, but an 'episode' may span a series of encounters, say if there's a conflict with a policeman, who then drags you into the station and questions you, only belatedly releasing you.

The 'episode' in this case revolves around the police encounter, but it can easily be something occurring over a weekend, as long as you wrap up the immediate conflict in the given chapter (section)—I do the same thing when I have multi-chapter named sections.

Is there a name/label for this style of storytelling and chapter formatting?

Biographical? It's clearly not diary-style (diarial?), though I'm guessing it's more episodic, since the it's broken into distinct units not defined by chapters.

Curious, I tried searching Google for "Literary chapter types". I didn't find anything useful, but I did find the following: "Critical Essays Use of Literary Devices in the Intercalary Chapters of The Grapes of Wrath". Apparently 'intercalary' is a type of chapter (dealing with descriptive text independent of the calendar events in the story). It doesn't look like an easy technique to pull off, given the description of it on the outline (Cliff Notes, of all things).

Another example of that would be interspersing chapters where your characters search for a murderer in a vineyard (borrowing from a certain SOL author) with chapters documenting the winemaking process.

If anyone can find a literary discussion of different chapter types, I'd appreciate seeing how they're dissected. However, another obvious one is 'flashback' where each chapter jumps back and forth in time (thought there are many different forms of flashbacks in storytelling). Think of that silly movie about two time-crossed lovers communicating via a magic mailbox. Each chapter advances the story in separate time frames.

Replies:   REP
Crumbly Writer

Discovered another chapter type: allegorical, where each chapter is an allegory of something bigger, such as one about a fox and a briar patch, or the scales of justice falling on a criminal, incapacitating him. I can't claim every having read a book with any of these, though.

Replies:   richardshagrin
REP

@Crumbly Writer

The 'episode' in this case revolves around the police encounter, but it can easily be something occurring over a weekend, as long as you wrap up the immediate conflict in the given chapter (section)—I do the same thing when I have multi-chapter named sections.


The situation I was trying to define could be stated as my story having what I think of as multiple subplots, say 10 subplots for discussion purposes. The subplots could be an ongoing argument with another character, an evolving situation, etc. The way that Ernest seems to handle subplots is to write about 1 subplot and complete the subplot, before starting the next subplot. I do that also to a certain extent. However, I often start subplot 1, switch to subplot 2 and then 3, go back to subplot 1, start subplots 4, 5, and 6, touch of subplot 1 again, start subplot 7, finalize subplots 1 and 2, and continue in this fashion to the end of the story. If the story is to have a sequel, many of the subplots don't get resolved in the first part.

richardshagrin

@Crumbly Writer

allegory

There is a lot of blood in the alley.

merlyn2748

@REP

This is closer to what I'm trying to do. I have been breaking at each day, but I am not including minutia not related to the plot and sub plots. My conundrum was the arbitrary beaks I had been using at the end of the days. I think I'll keep an eye on length and see if I need additional break points. Also, for the record I have already decided that book 2 will get written before posting starts. It seems a much safer way.

Replies:   REP  Crumbly Writer
REP

@merlyn2748

It seems a much safer way.


Yes! It gives you the ability to modify the earlier chapters if you decide the story should follow a different path than your initial concept.

awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer

My understanding is that diary format was very popular in ye times of olde, partly because diaries were the format people were most accustomed to for recording personal information. It fell into disuse as writers became more sophisticated. Then along came the millennials, with their short attention spans and addiction to blogging, and that revitalised the style. But the product of that style of writing doesn't lend itself to gripping thrillers, it's more for lightweight humour (Adrian Mole, Bridget Jones), hence my observation that Merlyn's story is too good for it.

AJ

Replies:   Merlyn
Merlyn

@awnlee jawking

Thank you, I appreciate that. I will try a better style with the next ;)

Replies:   awnlee jawking
Crumbly Writer

@REP

The situation I was trying to define could be stated as my story having what I think of as multiple subplots, say 10 subplots for discussion purposes. The subplots could be an ongoing argument with another character, an evolving situation, etc. The way that Ernest seems to handle subplots is to write about 1 subplot and complete the subplot, before starting the next subplot. I do that also to a certain extent. However, I often start subplot 1, switch to subplot 2 and then 3, go back to subplot 1, start subplots 4, 5, and 6, touch of subplot 1 again, start subplot 7, finalize subplots 1 and 2, and continue in this fashion to the end of the story. If the story is to have a sequel, many of the subplots don't get resolved in the first part.

That's the same technique I employ for subplots. Some are short term, like 'will the girl talk to me', but most extend for much of the story, only resolved near the end. However, with episodic chapters, you can base a single chapter/section on a subplot without resolving it, you merely address the initial issue in the subplot, base the entire chapters/section on it, and then move on, developing the subplots as the story progresses.

Crumbly Writer

@merlyn2748

Also, for the record I have already decided that book 2 will get written before posting starts. It seems a much safer way.

Personally, I prefer to finish one while I'm working on the other. Since editing requires different skill sets than writing, I find I have to do both otherwise I'll run into a dry period when I'm done with one. If you write/edit/revise fast, that's fine, but it takes me time to wade through everything, and working while I'm doing the other helps the process (i.e. write while you revise/edit). That way, when you complete the first book, you're already part way through the next. Add in a months delay between each story as a cushion, and you're set to go. But I rarely complete two complete books in advance.

That said, I actually do stack books up, because I like to offer one (for sale) while posting the other, so I like to publish one book while the other is posting. That necessitates a longer window on each story, so yeah, I'll often have a couple books lined up at a time.

awnlee jawking

@Merlyn

If, in your story, the end of a day occurs at a convenient point to end a chapter, I'd go with it. My rule would be to not force the issue either way.

And if I ever write a story with a score of over nine, my advice might even be worth considering ;)

AJ

robberhands

@awnlee jawking

And if I ever write a story with a score of over nine, my advice might even be worth considering ;)

There are no objective measurements to evaluate a story, least of all the scores on SoL. So you should drop any illusions that your advice will ever become more valuable.

Ross at Play
Updated:

@awnlee jawking

I've deleted my original post.

It was a low blow anyway, with an obscure reference to the name of an old American TV show.

Joe Long

@Ernest Bywater

Depending on what's happening 6,000 words for the events of a day are easily possible.


She Is the One over at AFF once had a single scene go 14k words as the two leads visited a psychologist for relationship counseling.

jashley13 writes as he goes and has stuck to a chapter every second week schedule very well for almost three years (except for his time in Basic Training). He had a few posts top over 40k words, but has settled into 18-20k per post, containing 2 or 3 scenes each.

Joe Long

@REP

The way that Ernest seems to handle subplots is to write about 1 subplot and complete the subplot, before starting the next subplot. I do that also to a certain extent. However, I often start subplot 1, switch to subplot 2 and then 3, go back to subplot 1, start subplots 4, 5, and 6, touch of subplot 1 again, start subplot 7, finalize subplots 1 and 2, and continue in this fashion to the end of the story


I view each plot line as a string. Some are long, others short. They are bundled together in a rope. The main plot is the one that is given primary attention in the story. The subplots are dealt with when they contact the main plot.

I'm writing a romance, so the main plot is boy meets girl and the things that happen between the two of them. In the third act certain things happen which lead to the climax. The way I have it plotted, the MC has to become a close platonic friend of his cousin's girlfriend (even if there is some sexual tension). This girlfriend has her own backstory and things going on in her life. I have to choose which parts of her story make it into the book, based on how much it influences the main plot and how much the reader has to know to understand it all.

Ernest Bywater

@REP

The way that Ernest seems to handle subplots is to write about 1 subplot and complete the subplot, before starting the next subplot. I do that also to a certain extent. However, I often start subplot 1, switch to subplot 2 and then 3, go back to subplot 1, start subplots 4, 5, and 6, touch of subplot 1 again, start subplot 7, finalize subplots 1 and 2, and continue in this fashion to the end of the story. If the story is to have a sequel, many of the subplots don't get resolved in the first part.


Most often subplots are short and sneak in between other activities, but some can carry over to later parts of a story. However, I do try to have all the subplots closed out before the end of the book, so I've nothing minor hanging over. Mind you, there are also such things as running gags and running plots that pop up all over the place in a series, but they aren't super critical to the main plot.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

However, I do try to have all the subplots closed out before the end of the book, so I've nothing minor hanging over. Mind you, there are also such things as running gags and running plots that pop up all over the place in a series, but they aren't super critical to the main plot.

The other thing that happens with subplots, is that even if they're resolved by the end of the book, like old TV stars, they're often revived in sequels to keep a trend going.

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