Chapter Length: How Long?

The question of chapter length comes up often in writing discussions and forums.

There exists no single correct answer, of course, other than “it depends” or “as long as it takes.” Not much help even though accurate.

Here are a couple things to consider about chapter length when writing and revising:

Reader Comfort

As a reader, my comfort level is greater when chapters are shorter, or at least broken up (indicated by the pound sign centered between paragraphs on the manuscript itself). I think many people feel the same way.

People have short blocks of time to read, while commuting, waiting for their kids to be released from school, or between other tasks that need attention—short sections give the book a faster, sprint-like pace while offering a “break spot” when a distraction interrupts them.

When that happens, the reader needs to be able to say, “Just a minute,” to get to the next section. People cringe and get all squirmy when disrupted in the middle of a sentence or paragraph—how do I bookmark that spot?

Shorter Keeps the Story Moving

Novel pacing wreaks havoc on many otherwise magical tales. Within the fantasy genre especially, long block-filled pages can drone on and on into 20,000-word chapters, the reader lost in a maze of unpronounceable names and moment-to-moment expression changes.

Writing shorter chapters—and sections within chapters which may act as transition or a new viewpoint character—speeds up the protagonist’s chase to their goal, propelling the reader forward so that, if not disturbed, they lose sleep cuddled up with a page-turner.

Those reasons alone are not a convincing case for shorter chapters, though.

Each chapter ideally should incorporate a character goal, tension, and action embraced by both. The action can be as simple as a conversation, which shouldn’t be simple at all.

The average chapter length reflects the short story norm, 2,500-5,000 words, an appropriate number of words to introduce a character, their goal, conflicts, and resolution . . . just like in a story.

Rather than thinking about the length of a chapter by number of words, consider what should happen within each chapter.

A chapter opens with the hero needing information (chapter goal); what follows are actions taken (and the obstacles faced) to get the needed information, but it doesn’t work out as they had hoped (tension). That is a good place to end a chapter.

The purpose of a chapter is to push the character into the next where more problems await.

Each chapter plunges the character forward in their ultimate quest (story goal) to save the damsel, find the one responsible for the murder, or learn to be a better person. But within each story goal are smaller, more immediate goals that must be met, and that’s the purpose of chapters.

Think of chapters as mini-stories.

Consider an hour long TV drama. Within that hour (maybe 45 minutes considering commercials) there are breaks, at minimum, between Act I and Act II, and Act II and Act III, and often Act III has a break between the climax and the credits.

What happens in those acts on a TV show? Characters are introduced, pressing problems arise, roadblocks inhibit forward movement, and a disaster . . . and now a word from our sponsors. That’s a chapter.

Not all chapters have to end in disaster (commonly called a cliff-hanger) and definitely shouldn’t or it gives the reader a “cry wolf” attitude, thereby reducing the impact of a true surprise moment. Use sparingly and save for those special plot instances.

Every chapter should incorporate at least one “reveal” moment, that is, something new about the character, their problem, or the plot. As with all fiction, words not relating to one of these topics need to be cut to move the story forward in some way.

There is no best answer for how many words a chapter should be, as long as you successfully introduce a character with a goal hurdling problems to reach a point where they start over again in the next chapter.

See you on the next page,


Writing Quote:

“I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.” ~Norman Mailer

Writing Links

James Scott Bell, a favorite writing instructor
The Kill Zone–Thriller blog; James Scott Bell writes one a week, as do other authors.
How to develop a Writing Plan

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Fiction and Natural Disasters

Catastrophic natural disasters happen all the time.

Hurricane Harvey has dominated the news over the last week, but it is only one of several natural disasters affecting and displacing people around the world. As terrible as Harvey has been for Texas (now accounting for 44 deaths and dozens still missing at last count), the monsoon that hit Napal, India, and Bangladesh last week killed over 1,200 and made millions homeless.

Currently, fires scorch the western U.S. and Canada, threatening thousands of homes while smoking up several states. Our small town at the foot of the Oregon Cascades sits in a valley where smoke accumulates and has made life miserable the last month—we are surrounded by several fires burning the forested canyons where biking and hiking are normally the call-of-the-day.

Disasters magnify the human condition in the suffering and peoples’ response to events beyond their control. Over the next days and weeks stories of bravery and tragedy will underscore the disasters—those instances are fiction’s ripe fruit.

Fiction is all about people in conflict, whether with themselves, other people, circumstances, or nature; disasters and a character’s reaction can include and embody all simultaneously.

Uncountable movies and books use disasters as their catalyst, and in some cases the events comprise the entire plot. Contemplating the disasters inundating us on the daily news, I realized I have never used a natural disaster in my own writing.

Perhaps character “motivation” is so deeply ingrained in my plot development—the how’s and why’s they react—is why I have never used an “act of nature” in my stories; I’m not sure.

The world impacts my characters (my MC hurtling over a waterfall, for example), but the cause of such action was another character’s betrayal and a bit of bad luck. Weather has certainly affected my characters, and the climate hints at a character’s mental state or the perception I want my reader to experience.

The magnitude of natural disasters and the lives affected are often lost on us as we have become complacent due to the sheer volume we read and hear about. But when writing, we leave our aerial view of the world and swoop down onto the shoulder and into the minds of our characters and their reactions to the world around (and within) them.

This is how it should be.

Writing about a natural disaster can be a doorway into a deeper understanding of a character’s motivations and reactions. Think of a macho-man cowering and polarized by fear during an earthquake, or a young female store clerk who risks her life to save a drowning puppy: each instance speaks to who these people really are beyond the persona they exhibit under normal situations.

I remember in the Kevin Costner movie, The Guardian, where as a Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician, he drops from a helicopter into a raging sea to save a drowning couple. During the ordeal the husband is only interested in his own survival: the Costner character has to punch the man to calm him, and after the rescue, the wife’s reaction to her husband’s cowardice is classic.

People act differently during duress than they think (or hope) they would. My dad always said, “No matter how you think you would react, you don’t know what you’ll do until a person puts a gun to your head.” He was right.

As a writer, you need to know how your character will react. Even if you don’t plan a natural disaster in a story, knowing a character’s reaction to all sorts of stimuli will give you—and, thereby, your reader—a better understanding of a character’s many facets.

Fiction is about people and how they respond to calamity.

As an exercise, put one of your favorite characters into a natural disaster and see how they react. Add that to your Character Sketch. Even if you do not use what you write, it will give you a better understanding and will help “round out” your understanding of the character.

See you on the next page,


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No Writer is an Island — Two Years Later


Two years ago I wrote of a special friend, Jeany, a retired English teacher, who helped edit my fantasy novel, The Returning. She spent long hours with no payment, with nothing other than a willingness to help me improve my writing skills. We met every couple weeks, spending an hour or two dissecting and improving my story. I have heard from friends I was not an isolated case, which made her invaluable and kind help even more special.

At a recent birthday party for a mutual friend (see, I do socialize, you doubters), Linda and I hoped to see Jeany, knowing her health had declined over recent months. Instead, we found that she had died three days earlier.

The last time I saw Jeany was on Mother’s Day when her daughter took her to the park and enjoyed an outdoor lunch under clear skies. As always, her warm smile and encouragement brought gratitude, and for the hundredth time, I thanked her for the invaluable help she so graciously showed me.

No writer is an island, I’ve said before, and Jeany proved that to me once again.

We writers are a solitary sort, often a requirement given our passion for the lonely creative process. However, what we write encompasses life and the people populating this crazy world, and one cannot adequately and truthfully portray a character’s dilemmas and foibles if we do not have a briefcase of information to draw upon—people provide the necessary information.

Jeany reminded me of that.

Knowing people and how they respond to disappointment, grief, joy and hope is what makes our stories real, our characters stout and full-bodied. Within people pumps motivations and dreams, but each manages them differently and for different reasons—it’s what makes us unique, and so should our characters be as well.

For this reason, we must live, we must mingle with humanity as they are the paints applied to the canvas of our stories.

During this time, when gathering with family and friends amidst toasts to the dreams of an upcoming new year, be on the lookout for character traits, instances, dialogue, the hopes and fears of the people around you—you may find interesting tidbits for a future story.

I can imagine Jeany leaning over to me while passing a platter of food: “Did you hear what they just said? That’s story gold.”

Knowing Jeany made me a better writer, and I hope a better person as well. Her enthusiasm for helping others “gain the power” of the writing craft and improving skills was her mantra, and her love of teaching was one of the catalysts for the creation of Knights of Writ.

Jeany emphasized we should not be alone, cannot be alone in our creation, and I will always remember her for that.

See you on the next page,


Tips for Writing Multiple Viewpoint Novels

arch to forestAt times, stories are too large to be told by a single viewpoint character. I found that to be true during the early stages of writing my fantasy novel, The Returning, and thereby made the decision for the entirety of The Veil Trilogy.

It was the correct choice to bring in three more “stars” for my tale. Though less important than my protagonist, whose character was always the focus of the yarn, each added a deeper dimension.

The protagonist’s love interest POV offered the ability to see my main character in a different way than he perceived himself—one of the best advantages of multi-viewpoint, the ability to deepen characterization.

The antagonist POV allowed the “other” side of the tale, and gave opportunity to show how much stronger the bad guy is, thus causing worry in the reader’s mind.

The fourth POV evolved from the story itself and was unplanned, and she ended up being one of my favorites.

Whether you are an outliner or not—or something in between like me—consider adding additional Viewpoint Characters to give your story a grander and more complex feel.

There are innate difficulties when using multiple characters, but also a number of benefits as mentioned above. Some of the problems are:

  1. Each POV must have their own specific plot line, and their movements through the novel need to, in some way, coincide with the Main character.
  2. Being a POV character requires each have their own goals, strengths and flaws, success and failures, which prompt them to their own resolution. Resolving their issues may or may not parallel those of your main character.
  3. Each POV must have a unique voice, outlook, background, fears and frailties. If an additional POV has essentially the same views or even speech pattern, they should be removed. If two people think exactly the same about each issue, one is unnecessary.
  4. Each POV must appear on occasion to fulfill the reason they are a viewpoint character in the first place.

Point 4 can get a bit dicey. I read a fantasy series where one of the POV’s disappeared for a couple hundred pages. When they returned, I had to go back and remind myself where in the plot line they had last appeared. I felt jolted from the story flow, and it took a bit to get back into the story’s rhythm.

When writing my novel, I kept a separate list of POV characters and where they appeared, both as a Viewpoint and when they appeared in the story but were not the POV. This is how I kept track during the first draft: the number in parenthesis is where the POV appeared, but was not the viewpoint character during that section.

Frank     1, 2, (3), 6, 7, (8), 8, 10
Mitzi      (2), 3, (5), 8, 9
George  4, (6), 9 (9)
Amy      (4), 5, (7),

By setting the story up this way (and keeping track), two things happen:

  1. Ensures each POV has reasonable time within the plot line, and the protagonist (in this case, Frank) gets most of the story time;
  2. Assuring each POV does not disappear for too long.

Using the 3rd person Multi-Viewpoint is not Omniscient Viewpoint, which is to say that each POV needs their own chapter, or at the least a section of a chapter indicated by a break (#) in the story—why Frank and Mitzi both appear in Chapter 8. Notice in the first part of Chapter 8, Mitzi is the POV character—Frank is present—and the second part of the chapter is within Frank’s view with Mitzi no longer present.

The Multi-POV offers unlimited possibilities. If you have never tried this particular option—it’s hard enough to keep track of one, you say—the attempt can deepen your ability to see a scene through a different character’s peculiar view. You might find you enjoy the multiple POV like I did.

See you on the next page,


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Characters Must Struggle

Life, like a well-plotted novel, can jolt one from the expected journey along a path never considered nor conceived, a place of pitfalls and pratfalls, of modesty and no time for it, battling fears and anxieties, moving forward, always forward.

And so it should be for our characters as well.

As writers, a large part of our job is describing circumstances and character emotions in a way to help a reader feel the pain, the terror, the indecision, the last hope dashed. A character’s struggle and vulnerability—as well as our own—often dictate personality.

My life’s path recently took me to places I never considered, and through the experience, conflicting emotions tore at me, sent me to my knees amidst tears and crying out. As a writer, my job is to write about such things.

I never thought I would push a long piece of plastic up my penis, and I certainly never thought I would be grateful for the opportunity to do so. When first explained of the eventuality by the urologist, my mouth dried up, hands shook, my mind a tempest.

The experience started out as expected, a simple outpatient hernia operation. I had undergone a similar “procedure” five years before to repair the left side; this time, the right side had broken loose. Nothing unusual expected: ten days off work to recuperate, the first few days fogged by pain medication until the discomfort eased.

Life’s plot chose another direction.

Three days after surgery, my wife, Linda, rushed me to emergency because I could not urinate no matter how much I tried or begged for it to be so (rushed is an exaggeration since the hospital is 45 miles away). Think of the growing urge to go, increasingly uncomfortable until you reach the bathroom and find the only stall occupied. Seconds waiting turn to squirming, when finally, you hurriedly push past the person exiting the stall (or urinal) and sigh with relief. Only relief didn’t happen.

I staggered into the emergency room; immediately the nurses realized my distress, sat me in a wheel chair, and at my request, pushed me to the nearest bathroom. I tried yet again, a dribble of no consequence despite the monumental effort.

An eternity later, a catheter was pushed up my manhood: sharp pain followed by relief as I lay back, knotted shoulders slowly untied, panting returned to normal breathing.

Three days later the catheter was removed, and two days after that I was back at the emergency room, another catheter rammed up my personal parts. Once more, warm relief followed burning pain.

Thoughts of suffering and death played through my mind.

Two days later, I learned to appreciate that sticking a long piece of plastic tubing up the narrow passage into my own bladder every six hours is a good thing.

Anybody who knows me will agree that I am a private person, that I do not share details of personal hardships except in passing or as anecdote to a more appropriate story. Why now with relative strangers who follow my blog?

As an anecdote for the larger picture—your characters must suffer!

As creator, you must climb into the character’s psyche, live their thoughts, and show the frailty of what it means to be human. We have all ran the emotional gauntlet, simultaneously confident and rattled by doubt, excited and terrified at the same time.  As writers, our experiences ignite ways to describe and define the actions of our characters. The internal emotional battles we face daily are examples we can use to give our characters well-rounded personalities, traits that make a character real and life-like—it is important we show those competing emotions to our readers.

Dig deep and you will find the dichotomy of your own emotions, and within those opposed feelings, a character can evolve from a mere skeleton to a fully fleshed out person that readers can call a friend.

See you on the next page,


Characters and Friends

Writing is exciting. I wake in the morning ready to word-paint the next scene: characters lurk in the wings like actors listening for their cue, each fidgeting before they stride onto the page; foreshadowed plot twists beckon me forward and demand increased attention. Ideas and events originally planned for the first novel evolve into much more than expected when weaved into the second book, more complicated and harboring deeper, richer tones. The plot edges nearer surprises awaiting not only the reader, but me.

I wonder how I came to this exhilaration of creation.

In the opening novel, the first draft altered dramatically into what has become the completed version; so shall the second. Throughout the creating process, my characters and I conversed often, each conversation adding to the depth of their individual personalities. Sometimes I was surprised. I learned many things about human nature during those talks, nuances of perception, both mine and theirs. Now friends, each character holds true to their own nature, varied in all phases of their persona. Each character I developed is real to me; hopefully their faceted personalities will intrigue future readers. That’s not up to me, though: my task, first and foremost, is to joy in the act of writing.

In that, I have succeeded.

Characters are the foundation of all stories, the driving force that moves readers down the road the writer paves. The road will be pot-holed and dangerous, bridges fallen to deep chasms below, enemies charging from the surrounding forest, as it should be. The challenges and the pitfalls the characters encounter—even more important is how they react to the difficult times—shapes them as a human being and more than black marks on a page.

Just as when you meet someone new, your perception changes as you watch and interact, whether daily or only on occasion. The words people say and how they say them gives you insights into likes and dislikes, passions, fears, and hopes. And then they do something unexpected.

Think of the mild-mannered cook who suddenly screams obscenities at the wait staff and throws a cleaver into a wall; the all-business secretary uncharacteristically brought to tears by a gesture from a fellow employee; the hardened cop crying at the sight of an accident. People in the throes of human emotion make a compelling story, and in the midst of watching the event unravel, the writer wants to know why people act and react the way they do. What happened in their life that formed the secretary into an “all-business” type; what horrid things did the cop witness that forced him into a shell to hold back the emotion for fear it would destroy him, and why did this accident cause tears? Is the cook mild-mannered, or just shy? Or is he something else altogether?

Peel back the layers of a person’s life and you will discover what makes people the way they are. Characters are the same way.

The instances described (cook, secretary, cop) are the beginning of the story, the hook that lures the reader in. Show the scene that pulls the emotion from the character, how they feel, and then spoon-feed the reader the “what-brought-them-to-this” highlights. Highlights. Too often, there is a tendency to explain everything—a dead-weight that brings the reader to an abrupt halt. Just as a painter knows what to leave off the canvas, so should the writer know what does not need to be said. Knowing what goes in and what comes out takes place in revision stage when you don the editor’s hat, and the more it’s done, the better a writer will be. For me, that is later.

Now is the burning heat of the first draft when my “friends” are living their lives; all I have to do is watch and write it down. Excuse me while I do just that . . . .

We’ll meet again on the next page,


This Week’s Writing Quote:
Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say.” Sharon O’Brien

It is not too late to sign up for The University of Iowa “How Writers Write Fiction.”

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What’s in a (character’s) Name?

Your characters are the foundation of your story; without them, you have nothing. People read to connect with characters, characters they can relate to, “people” who overcome insurmountable odds to accomplish their goals. Choosing the correct name for those populating your stories is important and should not be decided without due process.

Take my name, Rick. There are many variations—Richard, Eric, Ricky, Dick, Dickie. Depending on the name you choose, the person you write about will be different. For example, Jude Law’s character in The Talented Mr. Ripley is Dickie. To me that signifies the frivolity and care-free attitude of his life and his entire demeanor; how he is unable to settle down, rejects responsibility and lives off the allowance from his father. He would not be the same character if named Richard, a royal and regal name begetting leadership and strength. Jude Law’s character does not possess those qualities.

Think of character names of both famous and popular writing: Katniss in The Hunger Years trilogy (different character if named Katherine or Katie); Huckleberry Finn (would you be as interested if Twain had named his novel, The Adventures of Franklin Finn?); Pip from Dicken’s classic or Pipi Longstocking, for that matter.

Would you be excited by a movie staring Issur Danielovitch and Marion Mitchell Morrison? Probably not. Nor would you imagine they would star in a western, though Kirk Douglas and John Wayne would surely lead you to tales of the old west. Actors learned a long time ago that choosing the right name can make or break a career. William Robert Thornton alludes to a different persona than Billy Bob Thornton.

Character names are important, and when choosing them, consider the attributes and personality traits they infer. Jennie Darling is different than Jennifer Darling; Arthur Best or Artie Mortie.

Names of different nationalities are also important to consider. Penelope Perez rather than Penelope (who is called Penny) Hoogeland, Francine Wu or Franny O’Malley, Mohammed Smith or William Betencourt, the choices go on and on. Be cautious, though, that you do not unconsciously use a name of someone you know or someone known in the media. There have been lawsuits in cases of using a real person’s name and you do not want to be subpoenaed due to lack of judgment.

I’m often asked where I get my character’s names. Being that I write fantasy may differ from what you write, but there are several sources that can help all writers. Phone books are a good start, books on baby names, the news (careful not to pull a complete name from the headlines). Another good and often overlooked source of names, many of them unique, are the end credits of movies—I have found some fascinating names by not leaving a movie at The End.

I work in customer service, which is a fully planted field of interesting names. With notebook nearby, I jot down names of interest, always careful to write “real” next to a complete name so I do not inadvertently use it during the heat of writing.

Length of a name is important also, one or two syllables encouraging strength and forthrightness—the reason I chose Syjer as my protagonist in The Returning. Names can have a certain flowing nuance also, the reason I like the name of my female lead, Uleyha, which has a sing-song sound.

So when choosing a character’s name—including secondary characters—think of the impact the name will have on the character you create. A caution, though; refrain from naming a character Greg Creepy unless you have a very good reason, perhaps humor. Greg Creepy would not work for someone who haunts graveyards and lurks in the shadows.

So a challenge: do not turn off the movie at the end; instead, watch the names roll down the screen during the credits—you may find just the right name for the character burgeoning from your muse.

Now go create a few unforgettable names,

Rick (not Rich)

This Week’s Quote:
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
William Faulkner

This Week’s Links:

Free Online Course: How Writer’s Write Poetry

Online Fantasy/SF Conference and Workshops (cost involved)

Writer’s Digest Online Science Fiction/Fantasy Workshop

Fantasy/SF Critiques and Help (cost involved)

SFF Online Writing Workshop

Fantasy Writers