Short Chapters and Lots of Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week commenter Alec asked: “JSB, I’m reading your Ty #1 book at the moment (I’ve read thru Chap. 36). I’m struck by two things – the amount of dialog and you seem to be using and chapter breaks to move time along … Do you recommend shorter chapters with the intent being that each chapter reflects a scene or a conversation? I looked and this book has 127 chapters.”

Several years ago I was having my teeth cleaned (stay with me, Alec, this will connect) and the hygienist asked what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer. (Such conversations invariably lead to the person asking something like, “Oh, have I heard of you?” Which leads, also invariably, to a furrowed brow and some sort of negative response.)

“Oh,” she said. “Have I heard of you?”

I gave her my name.

Her brow furrowed. She said, “Hm, I don’t think so.”

Shocking.

As she put the little bib on me, she asked, “Have you heard of James Patterson?”

“Sounds somewhat familiar,” I said.

She leaned over conspiratorially and said, “I know his secret.”

“Do tell,” I said.

“He uses really short chapters.”

So that’s it! So simple! Short chapters = millions of copies sold!

I’m only half kidding. For Patterson really did popularize the short chapter method for thrillers. Indeed, much of the time he takes what would be a traditional chapter of, say, 2k words or so, and breaks it down into three or four shorter units. The last line of a unit will have some sort of read-on prompt and there you have it—a page turner. It’s kind of worked for him.

In the early 2000s, as Patterson sold more and more, I began to notice the chapters of other thriller writers getting shorter, too.

Which was aces with me.

Writing in Scenes

I’m a movie guy. I grew up devouring movies on the tube. There was a regular program called The Million Dollar Movie on a local L.A. station (Channel 9, I think it was) and they’d show the same movie each night for a week, and twice on Sunday. I’d sometimes take in the same movie four or five times.

For my first official date I took the girl to a movie. It was a really romantic one, too. Willard, a horror movie about killer rats. (I should mention that this was also my last date with said girl.)

Still with me, Alec?

When I found out you could actually major in film studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was all in.

I’m drenched in movies, and indeed it was a movie that reawakened in me a desire to try to write and sell stories.

Naturally, being from Tinseltown, I started with screenplays. I really learned about structure and dialogue and writing tight scenes via screenwriting.

Part of what got me a contract to write legal thrillers was the acquisitions editor telling me that I wrote “cinematically.”

Heck, I couldn’t help it.

I began my fiction career writing in traditional chapters, of a certain minimum length. Then one day I picked up a book by the hardest of the hardboiled, Andrew Vachss. It was Dead and Gone, and I loved his approach. No chapters. No numbers. Just scenes, some long, some short, set off only by white space and a drop cap. Here’s a screenshot of the first page:

What I loved about this was how liberating it felt. This was permission to write in pure cinematic style.

So when I began writing Try Dying, the first in my Ty Buchanan legal thriller series, that’s how I did it. In deference to the publisher, I did number the scenes. But the point is that writing this way means a scene can be as long or as short as it wants to be. No padding required. It also lets me easily control pace. I can put in a short scene that is rapid-fire action, or quiet emotional reflection, depending on how I want the book to feel at that point.

There are lots of possibilities so long as the reader is never lost on POV.

And that’s why I write in scenes.

Lots of Dialogue

Alec also mentioned the amount of dialogue, implying that it seemed, well, like a lot.

That’s because it is. I write thrillers and noir, and dialogue plays a major role in both. But I also love writing dialogue. Again, the movie influence. (See all those “zingers” from Friday).

So assessing the quantity of dialogue is the wrong focus. The only question is, does it work? The Fletch books by Gregory Macdonald, for example, are almost entirely dialogue. And they work as both mysteries and entertainments.

In addition, dialogue helps pace because it creates white space for the readers.

And dialogue is the fastest way to improve your novel. When an agent or editor (or reader, for that matter) sees crisp, orchestrated dialogue, they immediately gain confidence in the writer. That’s because they see so much flabby, plain-vanilla dialogue in their submissions.

I recall another date I went on where—

“Wrap it up, Jim,” he said.

“But it’s a funny—”

“Now.”

That’s a wrap.

11+

33 thoughts on “Short Chapters and Lots of Dialogue

  1. I’ve noticed that the more I write, the shorter my scenes. I think I’m learning where to start a scene and where to finish it, and how to pack layers of meaning into every description and line of dialogue.

    Feels great!

    A few years from now, I might master a two-line scene!

  2. Million Dollar Movie… I watched King Kong, Son of Kong, The Thing, and other horror classics so many times my head practically exploded. They were aces.

  3. My shortest chapter is 1 1/2 pages. Unless you count 10K word stories, in which case I’ve written a scene that was only two paragraphs. It’s such a great way to quicken the pace. Great post, Jim.

  4. I recall the late Barbara Parker saying she went to her apartment complex pool and saw a woman reading a book, so she approached and asked her if she was enjoying it. The woman paused, then looked up and said, “Well, the chapters are short.”

    From the other side. I don’t like books that are a bazillion tiny chapters. First, I read primarily in digital, and in order to get to Chapter 1, I have to swipe through page upon page of “Chapter 1, Chapter 2 …. Chapter 457” nonsense. And if I want to download a sample to decide if I want to buy the book, I’d like to get BOOK, not TOC and other front matter such as lists of reviews for every other book the author has written, but that’s a whole different peeve.

    In print books, I get a feeling that it’s “cheating” to pad the book because chapters always start on new pages, which means the book uses 1/3 more pages than it needs. Poor trees.

    In my last 2 books, I was going to ‘break’ my chapters at scenes (in romance–those books were romantic suspense), it’s customary to alternate hero/heroine POV, and I thought I’d make each scene a chapter. But I didn’t — went the *** route instead.

    • You raise some very practical points, Terry. Like the numbered TOC at the front of a sample. Seems to me the “Vachss method” would a better alternative for such a book (or at least put the TOC in the digital back matter).

      • I put my Kindle TOC at the end, but if the bots catch it they come after you with threats because it’s considered a cheating way to get pages read for KU. But since I don’t use KU, I’ll continue to put my TOC (and Kindle is the ONLY venue that requires a separate TOC from the automatically generated NCX version) at the end until they find it and threaten me again. Pfffft.

  5. “Excerpts from “Strega” and, I think, “Sacrifice” further pad out this flabby book and remind readers how lean and lupine the earlier books were.”

    Err, went to check out D & D on GR. Wow, some hairy beasts loved it. A lot hated it.

    Still, love short, ‘talkies.’ Wrote a one page ‘chapter,’ a crit partner of mine told me, “You can’t do that. It doesn’t do your story any favors and etc blah, blah, blah.”

    Not my cp anymore!

  6. I’m a believer, Jim. In all of our thrillers, Lynn Sholes and I try to maintain 1k word chapters with bait-and-switch endings. One of the most common feedback from our fans is that they finish a chapter, look ahead and see the next one is only a couple of pages, and keep reading instead of going to bed. Great problem to have.

  7. James Patterson who?

    I love this. I’ve been writing shorter chapters for years. I still like a short number of scenes in a chapter with a foreshadowy, cliffhangery, page turnery chapter ending. Multiple scenes in a chapter allow me to better include pace tricks I like to use, but I’ve grown to love focusing on ‘unique to character’s dialogue with tags stripped out.

    Don’t you love one-sided conversations with your hygienist while you “open wide”?

  8. JSB, as I was the origin of the question, I appreciate the explanation and I’m going to try to write more dialogue and think of the story as a screenplay. As a pantser I do ‘see’ my characters acting out the story in my head, but I think I could streamline the writing.

    I haven’t read JP in a decade as I started to dislike his protags (Alex and Lindsey). I was also put off by an array of co-writers (this was at least 5 years before I started writing myself). I haven’t seen a movie in perhaps 4 years, but I consume 2-3 audiobooks a week, so I’ll try to get a better sense of dialogue in my favorite audiobooks. I’ll re-listen to Harry Potter to see how Rowling does on the dialogue as it would make my list of favorite audios.

    • When pantsers “see” their characters in a scene, it’s like improvisation, isn’t it? i often use dialogue this way, to get a sense of how the characters speak to each other. I might write a whole scene just in dialogue (though I do know what the structure will be). The dialogue exercise helps me get to the heat of battle.

  9. Thanks for the ideas, Jim.

    Reading your books with “no chapters,” just scene after scene, made me think.

    I agree with Joe. When finishing a short chapter or scene, and looking at the clock and the length of the next “stopping point,” a shorter chapter or scene makes me more likely to read on.

    Then, of course, there’s the strength of the cliff hanger.

    I’ve often thought that books could be judged quantitatively, by how many pages (or minutes) the reader is enticed into reading beyond their intended stopping time. “This book had a ‘cpid’ (couldn’t-put-it-down) rating of 30 pages and 30 minutes.”

    Thanks for the post.

  10. I shoot for a chapter length of 12-15 manuscript pages, and for the most part each chapter advances at least two elements of the story, separated by space breaks. If I were following the Patterson model, each of those space breaks would be an additional chapter, thus more than doubling the number of chapters and adding way more pages to the printed final.

    That said, depending on where I am in the story, and on the impact I want to make on the reader, I won’t hesitate to have a very short chapter. What I want to avoid at all costs are very LONG chapters.

    I’m glad you mentioned the white space, Brother Bell. I’ve long preached that since writing is really about the reader, it’s incumbent upon us writers to remember that at one level it is a visual art form. That’s why I use way more paragraphs than my English teachers would approve of. Big blocks of words are tiring to read.

    Great post.

  11. I don’t mind shoter chapters if it’s a shorter book. Say, 200-page book with about forty chapters. I start to get annoyed, though, if we’re getting on more than sixty chapters. Also, I like to skim the table of contents, and if that’s four-five pages long, I get worn out before even reaching chapter one. Of course, the solution to that is not putting in a table of contents. But to me, the more chapter breaks, the more times I get pulled out to check how much time I have and how much more I have to read.

  12. Writing dialogue is my fav!
    As a legal mystery writer I have a lot of dialogue. Often I start by writing the courtroom scenes because I know it will be pivotal and then I fill in the rest of the story making sure the facts reflex the testimony.

    Most of my chapters are between 2 and 6 pages. I don’t plan that, its just how it turns out.

    I know that short chapters are in, but sometimes I read something and am very disappointed to realize the author has made the chapters short because it is in style. To come across 4 or 5 chapters in a row that takes place at the same location, in the same situation, concerning the same people is ridiculous. It becomes really apparent when you are listening to an audiobook.

  13. Jim,
    I was so glad you brought up this topic. I just recently finished my second novel using the scene per chapter method and alternating pov between my main characters. It really made the story flow and allowed me to leave the reader hanging repeatedly. This technique created many chapters and I was glad to read that this wasn’t a complete deal breaker.
    I employed one more trick that won’t work for every genre or novel, but it did for this one. This is a Young Adult Science Fiction Fantasy novel and others I have read used this also. I gave each chapter a baffling one two-word title. It leaves the reader hanging and lures them in again immediately.
    Your books and this blog have been my biggest learning tools so here’s a huge THANK YOU to you and everyone at TKZ. You are all very much appreciated.

  14. Dear Mr. Bell,
    I am in the process of reading ‘Revision & Self Editing’. Just finished Chapter 6 on dialogue. Can’t thank you enough for wanting to help us unpublished writers learn the craft of writing. Your paperback book covers are so unusual. How do you come up with them?

    • Thanks, Mary, always glad to hear that I’ve been able to help a fellow writer.

      The cover for that book was designed by the graphics people at Writer’s Digest Books. They did similar covers for Plot & Structure and other books in their write great fiction series. I thought all the covers were great.

      Thanks for asking

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