Has anyone noticed an interesting trend in literary fiction lately, or am I going crazy? On a routine supply run to a local chain grocery store for the coffee shops I manage, I usually take a few moments to browse the latest books. They have one of the better book sections compared to other chain department stores, so it always feels like a treat when I can take a looksie.
One of the greatest things to do when browsing books is, of course, flipping through the pages, and taking in the wonderful world the author has created. However, there seems to be a trend that I noticed a few months ago, and has persisted with every new release that I’ve flipped through
Are chapters getting shorter?
Now, hear me out. I am actually a fan of this structure for reasons I’ll get into later. I feel like it’s more manageable from a writing perspective, because instead of cramming so much information and progression within one single chapter, the author is able to keep the story moving at a more organized pace. I could argue that a lot of the times an author will use scene breaks to allow the reader to take a pause at the story’s progress, but in my opinion it feels so much more natural to end the chapter, and start a new one at a new scene. Don’t take that as I’m and anti scene break author, because I’m not. I use scene breaks all the time, I just feel in a contemporary sense that starting a new chapter is far more efficient.
So, what do I mean by being more efficient? In the outlining phase of any story, the author does a few things to keep organized well before fingers start clacking away on the keyboard. Some authors make plot points, some make a flow map, some just keep sticky notes everywhere, and some make a description for every single chapter. I am the latter. With this in mind, my chapters are already broken down into scenes. The exception being a change in perspective within the scene which I do several times in my current work in progress. The same events are happening within said scene, but the point of view switches to a different character.
I’m privileged to have the mind of a writer, so as I flip through the pages of new releases, I’m quite confident I know the reason why. I’ve had some of my fellow authors during discussions complain it is because the attention span of readers are shortening with the rise of Tiktok and other quick hit fiction. This is certainly true. However, it also makes the workflow of the author so much easier, so it’s a trend I’ve gladly accepted.
Compared to the fantasy novels of the 80s and 90s that hosted like 7,000+ word chapters, we are now seeing this trend take over modern fantasy authors churning out 1,500-3000 word chapters. This is completely fine and welcomed to not only the author in me, but the reader in me as well. I no longer have the time to sit on a late afternoon and consume an entire novella length chapter like I could in my younger years. Having these shorter chapters makes it easier to feel like, as a reader, you are making good progress, and are able to have multiple stopping points during your limited reading session. Nobody likes to stop reading in the middle of a chapter, so giving the reader the opportunity to frequently stop is perfect for the modern book world.
Next time you find yourself in the book aisle of your nearest department store, check out the chapter lengths of the newest releases, and you’ll see what I mean. Shorter chapters are a great trend that I hope hangs around for a long time.
– John McCool