Action Pacing in Novels – Long Chapters or Short?

by | Apr 3, 2015

Last Updated:
Apr 3, 2015

I mentioned in my last friday post that I’d been pondering chapter lengths. Actually as I wrapped up the final scenes in the Fight for Peace, I’d been evaluating novel structure quite a bit. Add to that Steven Montano’s monday post over at the Guild of Dreams on exactly that topic… well fate is telling me this post must be written!

In Steven’s post, he surmised not many authors think much about their novel structure. I must be one of the rare ones then, because I do plan chapter titles to highlight a significant event (or be a major tease if you are reading down the table of contents!). In Friends of my Enemy, I also indicated POV of the chapter at the heading à la George R.R. Martin. I love details and provide them for my own enjoyment as much as for the careful reader (or website viewer…).

I also plan chapter lengths and approximate number of chapters before I start writing. That allows me to have a targeted word length for the work and a good idea how tension should be building. I know when the main action should be taking place. All the blanks of what happens in each chapter might not be filled in, but knowing if things should be speeding up or slowing down helps me plan my writing when I sit down each night.

But a structural element that I hadn’t considered before came up while writing the Fight for Peace: chapter length. Not to give anything away (for a series where book 1 is only just on pre-order now!) but the final book as two very large battles on different continents. Since I don’t muddle more than one POV per chapter, the temptation to switch back and forth between these two main events with short chapters is intense!

I want to know what is happening and I’m sure the readers will want to know what is taking place too. So why not. The advice is short sentences for action, right? So short chapters for action scenes…?

I debated that idea extensively as I wrote, choosing to ignore the drive to switch back and forth with the caveat I could always chop up chapters later. It is easier to write all the events out in one chapter while everything is fresh in my mind, so I stuck to that. Which led me to a very long chapter. Now I’m seeking balance. 😉

I occasionally have short chapters in a novel just because everything that needs to be said can be written in 2,000 words. Why bore myself and my reader with another couple thousand words just to keep the word count up? So I can’t say short chapters always equals action. At times they are simply succinct events that need to be included.

But to have short chapters that jump from POV to POV and huge event to bigger battle… is that going to give readers excitement or a headache? And does the genre sway the choice.

My opinion: yes and yes.

I’m not writing a thriller, though the events are certainly thrilling. This is military dystopian. Dread and tension play as big a role as intense action. If I jump back and forth between these two battles, not only will I possibly confuse readers with what events are happening or have happened where, but I’ll keep hitting them over the head with action, Action, ACTION without the tension that builds during life threatening situations occurring to well loved characters. I could end chapters with life threatening cliff hangers, but is that the same feel as a longer chapter of escalating events, near misses, mistakes, luck, and luck running out?

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Right now, I like the feel the mid-ranged (fairly normal to slightly shorter than normal) chapter length is giving the battle scenes. There is enough information in them to sink into what is occurring without being confused about background, which battle the reader is in, and then being jolted out again just when the reader figures it out.

But there is that problem of a longer chapter as I mentioned in my previous post and above. I tried to rectify it by writing parts of the same event in a new chapter with a new POV. And I like how that turned out. But haven’t whittled down the long chapter… because I realized I missed a big fat plot hole. Hmmm…

So I’ve got to fix that long chapter in a different way, probably by adding at least one more chapter to the novel and doing some rewrites. And the realization of that problem and why it happened is probably going to be the subject of my NEXT friday blog post: is keeping a writing schedule really a benefit when you push yourself to write when all the pieces haven’t gelled? Stop by on April 10th for the verdict on that one…

And until then, do you consider chapter length when working on novel pacing? What do you think works the best?


Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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1 Comment

  1. peggymcaloon

    I have a tendency to prefer shorter chapters because that’s what I prefer when I’m reading. As my son says, “Life Happens” and the constant interruptions in life make longer chapters painful based on my active lifestyle.

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