November 29, 2001

A Column by Byron McAllister

I'm only on one "e-list," and I only participate in only "e-forum," both
devoted to writing mysteries.  At about the same time, recently, both took
up the question of how long chapters in a mystery novel "should" be.  I
have opinions, of course, but I made no positive contribution to the
question, in either place.  How come?  Because I have no idea how one
writer can justify telling another one how long a chapter "should" be.  Of
those who did, some advocated eliminating chapters altogether, some said
yeah, but divide the book into three or four enormous sections, and others
said a chapter should always be exactly twelve pages long.   Well,
actually, nobody made that last suggestion, but as the flailing around went
on, I expected it to happen.  I felt people were trying to answer a
question that might better have been left un-asked.

Some participants moved on to the matter of whether one should furnish each
chapter with a title--whether such an act is unprofessional and obsolete,
or is good, but only for juvenile fiction, or is all but essential.  It
ain't the same question, but it's pretty close.

Like you, I've read lots of books.  Along the way, I've seen real examples
of all the alternatives people suggested.  Without exception, they seemed
to work, which is why the whole idea of laying down a guiding principle on
these matters bothered me.  Somehow it reminded me of a conversation I once
had with a person who, though he had no more expertise on the topic than I
have, at least had the advantage that he had taken a literature course
where the discussion drifted to the ultimate question:  how does one
distinguish poetry from prose?  (I'm sure this question has bothered
humankind ever since the two words were coined-probably in Cro-Magnon days.)

When I was at my mother's knee, poetry usually had both rhyme and meter,
and prose never did.  So it occurred to me to ask "the question", Mom could
give me a simple answer--one perhaps nearly as good for an adult as for a
child.  Ah, but stormy weather since those sunny days has sent a lot of
water under the bridge, and I've been privileged to watch it cascade by.
On the prose side, for example, I ran across a passage by Bertrand Russell
in which he extolled the pleasures of writing in "rhythmical prose."  Well,
okay, why not?  Sounds pleasant, and I do like his style.  So since then
I've sort of tried to feed a bit of rhythm into my own prose.  When I
remember to, anyway: it doesn't always come naturally.

Meantime, the courses I took in school included a certain amount of what
was being called "free verse."  There'd been "blank verse" long before
that, in which rhyme was largely discarded.  As I got the picture, "free"
was even more blank than "blank," in that it didn't have much meter either.
Nobody mentioned rhythmical prose, which may or may not have overlapped
free verse anyway.  But I thought it all made sense at the time--even more
so after they showed me some Anglo-Saxon verse in which alliteration was
the big thing, not rhyme.  Hey, I could do that, even if not very well.
What wonderful freedom!

Anyway, the science of scansion, if that's still what it's called, began to
seem a bit trumped up.  The capper was the stuff by e. e. cummings, a man
whose typewriter (remember those?) couldn't do capital letters.  Undeniably
a poet, cummings used used rhyme, meter, both or neither, completely ad
lib, and sometimes all he cared about was the arrangement on the page.
Reading him, I should have caught on to the idea in my friend's dictum way
back then.

Oh, the dictum--I guess I haven't told you what his class settled on.
Well, they decided that, "If the writer has strong feelings about how the
words should be arranged on the page, then it's poetry."

Am I saying that in some sense the people who quarrel over how to make
chapter divisions and whether to use chapter titles and all that sort of
thing are at least wannabe poets?  Well, I don't wannabe offensive or
anything, but yeah, I guess to some extent I am.

Maybe it'd be more prosaic to say I fear they worry about the wrong things.

There's something mis-called "market reality" that can get you going on all
kinds of stuff, mostly irrelevant.  But this particular irrelevancy doesn't
seem to me to relate to "market reality."  How long your chapters should be
is worth worrying about only if you are worried about offending some editor
who cares.  But is there such an editor?  Mercy! I hope not.  What an idiot
he or she would have to be!  And if you can skip the editor's opinion, then
it's all a matter of the poetry of the moment: how do YOU want it to be

Wait, though.  Maybe it matters to READERS--a class of beings who
supposedly play a role in "market reality." (The reason I keep putting that
expression in quotation marks is that I don't think publishing houses
understand the difference between attempting to ascertain what readers want
and attempting to compel them to want what the publishing house has
invested money in because it's what the house has been assuming they want.
Market research is a terra incognita where a seat-of-the-pants navigator
constructs a priori charts, follows them, then goes aground or doesn't,
depending mostly on luck.)  But, as I was saying, maybe chapter lengths
matter to some readers.

Maybe.  If so, the "mattering" depends so heavily on what is going on in
the story that I don't see how any general rule can fit.  We all know, for
example, that the end of a chapter "should" be titillating so the reader
will read the next chapter immediately, rather than put the book down.
Well, but then what's the difference whether the titillation in question is
or isn't followed by a new chapter heading?  Wide-ranging policy is no way
to resolve such a question.

For the record, yes, I do have personal preferences, though they vary from
time to time.  I like a mystery's chapters-and for that matter the novel
itself-to be relatively short.  As for chapter titles, it depends on
whether the writer understands how to use them.  Wit helps, for example,
but I don't like chapter titles to be blatant red herrings.  HOWEVER, I
trust that what I like doesn't dictate what the people who run the
publishing industry will let YOU get away with.  They can't go by readers
at all, because some readers love long chapters (and even--shudder--long
books), while others prefer short.  Some regard chapter titles as annoying,
while others see them as useful guideposts.  There's no possible way a
writer or--in spite of what its marketing division may tell them--a
publishing house can please all of us at once.  And to write--or to
publish--only work directed at some fictitious "typical" reader is to
ignore more potential book-buyers than anybody can afford.  So I claim that
the only possible rule is this: if one of the options makes sense to you,
it'll make sense to readers, too.  That's the one to choose.