Short chapters and the “oh, just one more” syndrome

Having just finished reading Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby (a review will be up some time within the next week), I decided to move on to another book by Hornby, and perhaps one of his most famous, High Fidelity. 

One of the first things I noticed about High Fidelity, just flicking through it quickly, is that throughout its 250 odd pages it has nearly 40 chapters. That’s roughly 6 pages a chapter, which is quite remarkably short. I’ve read plenty of other books with similarly short chapters, including some of my favourites: most of Douglas Adams’ books had chapters of only a few pages in length, and a lot of books by Louis de Bernières have short chapters too (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (great book, awful movie), if I remember correctly, has 70 odd chapters across 500 pages).

One of the things I have noticed when I read books with short chapters is that I seem to suffer from “oh, just one more chapter” syndrome, often right before I should be going to sleep. I’m a person who can’t finish reading mid-chapter – I feel like stories are broken up episodically like this for a reason and so I try and adhere to this in my reading habits. If a book has chapters averaging 30 pages each, chances are I’m not going to start a new chapter if I’m starting to feel tired, or know I should really go to sleep already. But if it’s only a few pages, I suddenly find it a lot easier to talk myself into reading “just one more”…again, and again, and again, until, somewhat ironically, I’ve probably read 30 or 40 more pages anyway.

So I want to know your thoughts on this! Do you start and stop your reading at the beginning and ends of chapters, or do they not make much difference to you anyway? If you do read chapter by chapter, do you prefer shorter chapters or longer ones, and do you find yourself doing the same thing I describe here with shorter chapters? Lastly, if you’re a writer, do you try to write longer or shorter chapters, or do you just see how it goes with each story you write?

16 thoughts on “Short chapters and the “oh, just one more” syndrome

  1. I don’t have too much of a preference on chapter length, and I’ll stop reading even in the middle of a chapter. I guess I’d say I like medium-length chapters–maybe 15 pages? I feel like it keeps the pace up, though of course the pace can be good in longer chapters as long as the writing is good.

    When I was little, I’d stop reading at the bottom of a page even if it was in the middle of a sentence. Craziness.

    • Yeah, I think I agree actually – 15 to 20 pages is a good length for chapters, as it allows actual development without dragging out too much. But then the writing ultimately makes it, as you point out.
      Hahaha that is so funny that you used to just stop at the bottom of the page like that…kinda cute though! 😛

  2. I have the “oh just one more” syndrome. But I will normally flick ahead and see how long the chapter is before deciding to read on or not.
    As for preference, I do prefer shorter chapters as they make me think that I am reading super fast and I absolutely DESPISE being stuck in the middle of a really long chapter right before I’m about to get off the train. Shorter chapters definitely work better for regular users of public transport!

    • Actually, yes, I do that too, I check the length of the chapter before proceeding. Glad I’m not the only one haha.
      That is a good point about longer chapters on trains etc, though I have never had much of an opportunity to read on trains. I drive to work, and I drove to my second degree, and my first degree I did use the train but I used it to do uni work, sadly. Even on the planes to the other side of the world last year (and again in a couple of months) I found I didn’t read as much as I thought I would – sleep, food and movies took up a large portion of my time. Mind I was quite nervous too last time, I suppose…anyway I’m digressing massively here.
      I think actually, the more I ponder it as the day goes on, I like short chapters for short books, but longer chapters for longer books. Otherwise if you’re reading a thousand page beast of a book that is broken into chapters every 3 pages, you never feel like you’re actually getting anywhere. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it? 😛

  3. I have that syndrome too! That’s exactly what’s happening to me with A Game of thrones, I was afraid the book was going to be tiresome, but chapters are not too long and I can’t stop saying “oh, just one more”.

    • Oh really? I haven’t read Game of Thrones yet actually, but it’s interesting to know it has small chapters considering it (and it’s various sequels) are all quite large books – it’s rare to see large books with small chapters, at least in my general experience. I know a lot of the larger fantasy books I’ve read have epic chapter sizes, sometimes reaching 40 or 50 pages. Mind, nothing will beat one of the chapters in Norwegian Wood…a 300 page (or was it 400) page book broken into 11 chapters, except chapter 6 I think is about 100 pages. Insane. And yet, it worked perfectly in that book – it was entirely necessary to establish the pace of the scene.
      At least if Game of Thrones is provoking that syndrome you’ll get through the book faster, right? 😉

      • I’m reading it at a breakneck speed! I thought that, since I know what’s going to happen, I will get bored pretty easily and move to another thing, but I can’t stop reading. I’ve got to admit that short chapters are a point in favour and are helping a lot…

        Norwegian Wood will still be perfect even if it hasn’t no chapters at all 🙂 Actually, I don’t care too much about how many pages the chapters have if the book is not too long, but if I’m reading something that has more than 500 pages I need something that indicates me that I’m moving forward in the story and not stuck in the middle of nowhere.

        • Ah so you’re reading it after seeing the television series? Interesting. That’s good it can still keep you interested despite knowing what’s going to happen!
          That is a good point about Norwegian Wood too – it is a pretty special book really! 🙂 I think you’re right, I think with shorter books it doesn’t matter if the chapters are long, as you know deep down you could knock the whole book over in a few hours or a day. 😛

  4. Great post! Such a good idea. This is me to a tee. I love it when a book has short chapters, because somehow pyschologically I feel like I read it faster?!
    I can never stop reading mid-chapter, I prefer to finish what I’ve started. I too tend to flick forward and see how long a chapter is, then think ‘oh go on, it’s only a few pages.’ If I discover that a chapter has tons and tons of pages, I find it incredibly daunting. Short chapters all the way!

    • Thank you! 🙂
      It’s funny isn’t it, how our own psychology works with regard to our reading habits and patterns?! I don’t so much find it daunting if I flick forwards and find a chapter has a lot of pages, it’s just that if it’s late at night, or I know I have something else I need to be doing, I tend to just think “oh…maybe not right now”. But yeah, I think I’m with you overall, short chapters are generally preferable. Or at least shorter chapters. 😛

  5. I love reading short chapters because, like you, I feel that they are deliberately formed that way so that each one covers a piece of the plot. My writing, well I am very much a short story writer and my novels and novellas have generally started life as blog serials and so I tend to keep them short so that readers can whip through them in a coffee break. I wouldn’t deliberately alter a scene to fit a short chapter but on some subliminal level it seems to work out that they are short. Yes I also suffer from the just one more scenario with my reading.

    • That’s a good point with your writing, and I imagine you’re not the only one who writes generally shorter chapters for that reason. I think, as you imply, there are some scenes which simply require longer chapters, but then it really depends what kind of story you are writing, too.
      It seems quite a lot of us suffer from this syndrome which I describe. Haha, I’ll make Dr Watson yet… 😛

  6. As a reader, I’m the ‘just one more chapter’ type. Unless I’m interrupted mid-chapter (which I hate!) I will usually end at the chapter break before putting the book down for sleep (or whatever).

    As a writer, my chapters vary, depending on the scene or the action(s) taking place. Sometimes, I’ll close off a chapter at the end of my character’s day or when she/he needs time for reflection, but I generally like to tease my reader, leaving a chapter at an exciting point, encouraging them to continue reading. 🙂

    • Yeah, I usually end at the same point when putting it down to sleep, although lately some nights I realise I keep re-reading the same page and not progressing, and I have to give in and stop at a bad point. Which annoys me but such is life haha.
      I think the way you describe writing chapters is the best way to go about it. I don’t think every chapter should end on a massive cliffhanger (as some books do), but like you say it should be teasing the reader to keep on reading. 🙂

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