I finished reading The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland yesterday. The first book in the Arthur trilogy, it is set in 1199 on the border between England and Wales. It is a beautifully written story, that really brings the past to life, and there are several different things that I could talk to you about, but I’m going to write today about the length of his chapters.
I know, a bit of a weird topic.
However, if you write fiction, like me, you might know the debate that goes through your head when you are trying to decided where to start new chapters, and where to end them, and how long they should be, and should they all be roughly the same length, and if you write to children, like me, there’s the added question of whether a chapter should be a certain length for certain age groups, and how long can a chapter be for a nine-year-old not to be daunted by it, and so on. I assume other writers go through similar questions in their head, but who knows, it might just be me.
Kevin Crossley-Holland’s book has 100 chapters in it. They range from being a short as half a page, to up to ten pages. They are perfect – each chapter captures a different thought from Arthur, the narrator, who is writing in a sort of journal. It makes sense that each chapter is as short, or as long, as it is. They portrayed snippets of Arthur’s life and thoughts and the world around him in perfect little bites.
Having such short chapters (a ten page chapter was rare – most were between two to three pages) is rather unusual in fiction, especially fiction aimed at young adult readers or adults. I found it a really interesting literary device – because that was what it was. I forget, sometimes, that chapter breaks are actually a decision from the author, not just a way to signal to me that I really need to turn off the light and go to sleep. The next book I read (which is Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, in case you were wondering) and for the few books after that, I’m going to take an active interest in where the author ends the chapter, and think about why they chose to end it there.
Kevin Crossley-Holland has taught me a little lesson as a writer, and a reader. When writing, I shouldn’t worry about trying to keep the chapters consistent lengths. It’s more important that they help tell the story. And as a reader, he’s disciplined me on actually stopping reading and going to bed. It’s so easy to say to myself ‘one more chapter, then, I’ll go to sleep – Oh, this chapter’s only one page, that doesn’t count – oh, that one’s only three pages, I can read one more…’
No Georgi, honour your word. Just read the one page chapter, and go to sleep. The story will still be waiting for your in the morning.
This is amazing! I am a big fan of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s academic work on medieval culture (geeky, I know, but he’s brilliant!) I’m going to the Hay Festival of literature in Wales next month and noticed that he’s giving a talk. I got so excited but sadly it’s not about Old English, it’s about his children’s books and it’s part of the children’s festival so I feel like I shouldn’t go. But is it okay that I still really want to?? Sounds like a great read!