The James Patterson Effect

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?

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26 Responses to The James Patterson Effect

  1. D.A. Riser says:

    Edie – I 100% agree with what you are saying. The same effect also filters down into our TV shows and movies and even school lessons and church sermons. We are a society with a shortening attention span. So, yes, I’ve made a conscious effort to keep my chapters and sentences brief. Great blog!

  2. 😆 Leave it to me to be middle of the road. I tend to write short paragraphs, but have long chapters. I’ve been thinking about turning them into their own chapters, but worried that a two page chapter might look like I had run out of steam. Since I’m almost done with the first draft of my new WIP, I tempted to give it a try anyway.

  3. Edie Ramer says:

    D.A., I notice that about myself. I have a hard time concentrating, and I joke that I have a touch of ADD — except it’s not funny. I wonder if it’s partly because we’re so used to commercials. Our brains are programmed to concentrate in short bits of times.

  4. Edie Ramer says:

    Marcia, if there were a line-up of writers, I’d never pick you to be the middle-of-the-road writer.

    I’m revising my ms., and I notice that I split one scene in three, stopping at a tense momnet and alternating scenes from other pov characters in between the three scenes. I hope it’s working!

    I think I have a three-page scene somewhere, though most are longet than that. And I’m pretty sure I remember a one-page scene in JAK’s book.

  5. Great post!
    When I was first writing I wrote long chapters, until I read that to create more drama, use shorter paras and sentences. I thought they were short enough, but since I’ve had two authors tell me to make them shorter!

    I agree that its def easier to read shorter chapters. Even if a book is good, now that I have a son, i need more breaks and its hard to jump back into a book when you’re in the middle of a chapter.

    I think I’ll go through my book now and make shorter paras. lol

  6. Edie,

    Great post, as usual. I’ve noticed I’m writing shorter scenes, shorter sentences and shorter chapters. Most of the time. To change the pace or add to the ambience of a scene or chapter, I may have it longer. But at most not too often.

    This is distinctly different from my earlier writing. I read John Updike’s, The Widows of Eastwick a few weeks ago and found sentences that ran almost 200 words. And were one paragraph. 🙂 Had to go over that one several times, which slowed the pace but maybe that’s what he wanted.

    Loved your kitty photos also.

  7. Cynthia Eden says:

    Interesting, Edie! I’m a shorter paragraph and sentence gal. I like my white space. This is particularly true when I am doing an action scene–short, fast sentences give the scene punch for me.

  8. Michelle says:

    I write short paragraphs (sometimes one sentence) and short scenes, but I usually bundle about two or three scenes per chapter, for roughly 10 pages per chapter. It works for me. I can see why making each scene a new chapter would encourage people to ‘just read one more chapter’, though, and I’d be quite willing to change. After all, it just means more chapters, it isn’t a big structural change.

  9. Kath Calarco says:

    I usually ramble first, and then go back to break things into paragraphs/chapters. My theory is that in the long run, when an editor is lucky enough to have my ms, they’ll most likely suggest changes to my changes, so I really don’t sweat it too much. (Especially since I’m eons away from submitting anything.)

  10. Edie Ramer says:

    Lori, when I started, I thought I meeded long chapters, too. Writing fiction is a journey for most of us. It’s like life. We learn as we go.

    Too funny about making your paragraphs shorter. But I do that, too. 😆

  11. Edie Ramer says:

    Mary Jo, we love kitty pictures here. I added a dog, because they’re cute, too. 🙂

    I found an early book by one of my favorite historical writers, and I had a tough time getting into it. It was too wordy and not interesting. I ended up putting it aside.

    I think if I would have read it when it was first out, in the ’80s, I would have liked it. I’m used to faster reading books now.

  12. Edie Ramer says:

    Cindy, your books have a fast pace, whether it’s a seduction scene or an action scene. You could do a workshop on page-turners.

  13. Edie Ramer says:

    Michelle, your writing is an inspiration to me. I learn how to do it right by reading your subs.

    In Leah Hultenschmidt’s blog comments, she said they can bundle short scenes into one chapter to save paper, which is what you’ve done. She also said it was an easy change, so either way it’s good. 😎

  14. Edie Ramer says:

    My theory is that in the long run, when an editor is lucky enough to have my ms, they’ll most likely suggest changes to my changes, so I really don’t sweat it too much.

    Kath, I LOVE your attidude. And you’re right. An editor will be lucky to have our mss. 🙂

  15. LaDonna says:

    Hey Edie, I love Jame P! 😆 In my own work, the last two golden nuggets I’ve read have been the longer books and since those were my first love, I figure I’m a saga gal at heart. I like meat, and if I’m in a story I don’t care how long the chapters are. Just get me there in the first place, and time ceases to exist.

    Great blog!

  16. Lee says:

    I really am trying to go with shorter and faster. I do have a natural habit to go with length and density…Which can bog down a story, although it can be very pretty and emotional. I find most of the best entertainment reads, are shorter and faster reads… I’m reading Wake, now and it is very short sentences, with little density. But it really draws me in.

  17. Edie Ramer says:

    LaD, I know you’re a James P fan. The kind of Southern books you write, longer paragraphs are more prevalent, so you’re fine. And whatever suits you is what you should go for.

  18. Edie Ramer says:

    Lee, it’s tough to go against your nature. One of my CPs writes longer, and I’ll split some of her long paragraphs to give it more white space. Though it’s the same amount of words, just doing that helps.

    There’s a time for longer, emotional paragraphs, too. 🙂

  19. spyscribbler says:

    Wow, this makes me feel better, LOL! My husband commented, a year or two ago, that I didn’t write paragraphs, LOL. It was all dialogue and one- or two-sentence paragraphs.

    Now I’ve swung the other way, but I doubt I ever write a paragraph that’s more than three or four sentences. I’ve been trying to push myself, just so I know how, LOL. But maybe I should stop!

  20. Edie, I never thought about cutting my chapters in half. I usually have a couple of scenes per chapter, but you’re right, shorter chapters means faster pacing. Ah it’s a learning curve.

  21. Edie Ramer says:

    Spy, I love your writing in your blogs, and I know I’ll love your writing in your books. At least your husband reads what you write!

    Don’t push yourself to write more. Your voice shines at what you do. That’s your natural rhythm.

  22. Edie Ramer says:

    Natalie, you can always change them either way. That’s so easy to do. If you think it’s better to have more than one scene per chapter, that’s fine. This is just what I’ve decided to do.

  23. Joe Barone says:

    Shorter with more white space. But there are people who do it better than Patterson. I read some of his books, but they are too patterned or canned for me.

  24. Edie Ramer says:

    Joe, I’m not a Patterson fan. I couldn’t finish the one book of his I tried to read. But his huge popularity shows that people are hungry for the fast-paced books.

  25. Liz Kreger says:

    I fall into the “longer is better” field (and am obviously in the minority. 😆 ) I guess I personally don’t see the need for a writer to write shorter paragraphs in order to make for a faster read. And why should a writer want to push the reader along? What I’m saying is that it sounds like this “dumbs down” the reader.

    Yes, you want to engage the limited attention span of your reader, but if you’re a good writer, you’re going to do that whether you have a fast read or one in which the reader can absorb and wallow in your story.

    Just my two cents worth.

  26. Edie Ramer says:

    Liz, there’s room for everyone. I don’t feel I’m reading dumber when the book has short paragraphs. Some writers can say more in a sentence than in a paragraph.

    There’s room for all types of writing. I know you like MaryJanice Davidson’s books, and she writes short paragraphs and page-turners.

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