A couple months ago, I listened to a Joan Johnston workshop from RWA National 2008 on writing a page-turner. In addition to writing a compelling beginning and ending of each chapter, she said we need two other ingredients to create a page-turner: short scenes with lots of white space.
She mentioned James Patterson, the #1 bestselling writer. If you’ve read his books, you know he writes short chapters and short paragraphs. Often his paragraphs are only one sentence. (From what I remember of the one book I started and didn’t finish.) Short paragraphs are less visually intimidating to the reader than blocks of paragraphs.
I agree with Johnston. Sometimes I’ll be up late at night, wanting to read just a little more, and I’ll flip the pages to find the chapter or scene break. If it’s ten to fifteen pages, I might put the book down. I have so many books strewn around the house, the next time I get a chance to read I might pick up a different book. By the time I go back to the previous book, I’ll have lost my enthusiasm.
But … if the scene is, say, three to six pages, I’ll read it. And let’s say it has a compelling ending that makes me read the first sentence of the next scene. And let’s say the first sentence is compelling and makes me want to read the rest of the scene. Since I know this author’s scenes are short, I’ll keep reading until I think, “I’m up late already. I may as well stay up and finish the book.”
Joan Johnston said she’s now writing shorter chapters, one scene per chapter. I already write short paragraphs and scenes. But I was bundling two or three scenes in a chapter. After I listened to the workshop, I went through my wip and changed it to one scene per chapter. Even if the scene was only three pages.
This was something I was already considering. A couple days previously, I’d read Running Hot by Jayne Ann Krentz, and noticed the short chapters. Jayne Ann Krentz is a smart lady, and I’m guessing she’s taken notice of the James Patterson Effect.
Now to argue the other side. Many books with blocks of paragraphs are sold to publishing houses and bought by readers who love them. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books have thick blocks of exposition and longer chapters, and I enjoyed them. She’s a NYT’s bestselling writer, and a lot of other readers enjoy her books, too.
One-size-fits-all clothes do not fit me. One-size-fits-all-writing doesn’t fit all writers. Shorter chapters and white space suits my voice and my style. If your voice suits the longer paragraphs and chapters, and the James Patterson Effect would stifle you, you are right to ignore it.
So which is your style? Longer and denser? Or shorter and more white space? Do you ever check to see how many pages before a chapter break to decide whether you’ll read on?