I was visiting my mom the other night and was reminded of an important lesson for fiction writers.

Mom reads a lot of fiction—mostly mysteries—and during this visit she held up a book by her favorite author and said, “Do you know why she’s my favorite author?”

I was ready to offer up suggestions such as characterization, plot, suspense or any number of other possible answers. But Mom’s response was surprising. She said, “I like this author because her chapters are short.”

I looked at the book and, sure enough, there more than 60 chapters in a 300+ page book. I got out the calculator and determined that each chapter averages five pages in length. Some, of course, are shorter and some are longer.

Mom went on, ”She doesn’t write the stuff I don’t want to read about.” I took that as confirmation of novelist Elmore Leonard’s response to an interviewer’s question about why he was such a popular author. He replied, “Because I leave out all the stuff readers skip over in other authors’ books.”

Many of the manuscripts I see suffer from this malady: they plod on and on with unnecessary words and even paragraphs. One key in becoming a good writer is knowing what to leave out in the first place and, having not done that, knowing what to cut when you do your self-editing. Cutting should be a major part of your second and third draft efforts. An artist friend of mine tells me that the key to good visual art (oils, watercolors, etc.) is knowing what to leave out. That’s true of fiction (and non-fiction) too. Many aspiring authors have not yet learned that part of the craft.

Years ago I read an article in Writer’s Digest wherein the writer was commenting on a Star Trek script that had two or three manuscript pages describing an effort to turn the Enterprise around. The author said he simply took a red pen and Xed out those pages and substituted the words, “Reverse course,” yelled Captain Kirk.

One author I’m proud to have acquired and edited is Brandt Dodson. Brandt is a master at short, clean chapters. His first novel, Original Sin, had 274 pages and 63 chapters. That’s barely four pages per chapter. Chapter 58 is less than a page. Order Brandt’s book (it’s on Kindle too) and read what I mean.

Then, on the next draft of your WIP, I want you to look closely for places to cut. And that unsold manuscript in your desk drawer? Pull it out and see if cutting it doesn’t make it better. Then send it out again.

Less is more. Remember that.

9 replies
  1. Richard Mabry says:

    Nick, Your mom is right, at least in my eyes. One of my favorite authors remains the late Robert B Parker. His books were full of “white space” because of short, punchy dialogue. And the chapters were short. I could finish one in a couple of sessions, but always did so with a note of sadness because he held my attention.
    Now I have to go back and check the chapter lengths in my books. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Michael K. Reynolds says:

    This is why so many of the “director’s cut” versions of movies drag and drag. There is a reason why the film editor cut those scenes out in the orginal version.

    But…Mom…that doesn’t make the cuts any less painful.

  3. Jan Cline says:

    Whew. I was thinking that by the time mine was done the chapters would be too short. I also like short and sweet books. My attention span isn’t long enough to endure the long, drawn out stories. I like how your mom thinks. My own mother always liked the 3 inch thick sagas. Each to his/her own.

  4. Melissa K. Norris says:

    This is one of the reason’s I enjoy Brandiylnn Collins. Short is good. Especially with suspense, or when the tension is high.
    I almost always end up cutting things when editing, rather than adding.
    With never any extra time, I feel good if I can finish a chapter. And if the writer is good and ends with a cliff hanger, I’ll be forced to read the next. I blame those authors and chapters for my extra cup of coffee in the morning.

  5. Brandt Dodson says:

    Hey Nick,

    I agree with your mom. Shorter chapter tend to lend themselves to a more rapid pacing of the book and aid in reader retention. Most of us don’t have the time to read a long chapter of, say, 40-50 pages. I don’t think our attention spans permit that.
    But I also believe that stories which play out on a larger canvas (for example: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett) have their place too and the two forms are not mutually exclusive.
    Thanks for your kind comments, my friend.

  6. James Scott Bell says:

    I was getting my teeth cleaned a few months ago, and the hygienist asked me what I did. I told her I wrote thrillers, and she asked if I’d ever heard of James Patterson. I, ahem, mentioned the name sounded familiar. She said, “Well then I’ll tell you his secret. Short chapters!” It was like she was giving me the keys to the kingdom.

  7. Peggy Rychwa says:

    I always preferred to read short chapters. My hairdresser and other working women who have offered me advice on what they enjoy reading have said the same thing: We like short chapters. But I never thought a publishers would want that.

    So that’s great news.

  8. Alan Oathout says:

    Probably stating the obvious, but I think it really does depend on the priorities of your target audience. I enjoy reading both literary and commercial fiction, and appreciate the contrasting approaches of both. Commercial fiction definitely emphasizes pace & tension with (on average) shorter sentences, shorter chapters, shorter books (Stephen King’s doorstops notwithstanding).

    Fans of literary fiction place a higher premium on vivid description, deeper characterization, and thoughtful explorations of the human condition, all of which require a bit more time. While there are some literary works that effectively use short chapters (Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”, or Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife”), most are longer…and some (“Rabbit, Run” by John Updike)have no numbered chapters at all.

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