I asked myself a while ago, “How do you know whether a book is worth finishing?” and after a while of thinking, I came up with the answer: The 3-Chapter Rule.
Now this question could have been flipped to ask how to know if you’re writing something worth reading as well and it comes down to the same thing. And before I explain what the 3-Chapter Rule is exactly, I have to put a little disclaimer here to inform and remind people of a few things (lest I rouse the beast that is the internet-troll).
Everything I say is, of course, my opinion. Do not take it as gospel or as objective truth. We all have things that we individually like and dislike. We have different opinions on everything. What I’m about to say is merely my opinion and how I approach the subject.
The 3-Chapter Rule is not a “hard rule” or a strict guideline to follow. I merely chose to call it a rule because I use it as a (loose) rule and because I like the name. The 3-Chapter Rule is merely a guideline one can use. It does NOT have to be a hard rule.
Now let’s get into the 3-Chapter Rule and what it is. It is a fairly easy concept and I’m sure that some of you have figured it out by now. The 3-Chapter Rule is what I use to determine whether I’m enjoying what I’m reading and whether what I’m writing is any good. It goes a little like this:
“If I still feel like reading this book after 3 chapters (or roughly 30 pages or so), I should continue. If after 3 chapters I feel no more compelled to read it than before and I have no real urge to read it, then I can comfortably put the book down and never pick it up again.”
And when it applies to writing it is basically the same concept, except that it’s more about asking yourself some key questions:
“Do I believe that what I’m writing can draw a reader in after just 3 chapters (or 30-ish pages)? Will the end of the 3rd chapter make my reader want to turn the page and keep turning the pages until they finish? Do my BETA-Readers feel like they really want to read this book after 3 chapters?”
If you can honestly answer yes to these questions, then it’s more than likely that your reader will be able to honestly say the things in the first example.
So, why three chapters? Well mostly it’s because I like the number 3, but it’s also the fact that most people have short attention spans. In our culture, we are always looking for instant gratification, and while you can’t always get them with books, people are not likely going to sit through 5 or more chapters just waiting for that moment that will hook them. Three chapters are enough to hold the reader’s initial attention whilst also giving the author enough time to set up the stage for the moment that will hook them.
I read a lot, and I’m not just saying that as a way to feel superior or validated as a writer. I don’t read a book a month or something like that. We are about three weeks into January of 2016. I have read exactly three books in these three weeks and I’m busy with my fourth (for those interested, I’ve read APE: Author – Publisher – Entrepreneur by Guy Kawasaki, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and The Hobbit by J.R.R.Tolkien. The fourth I’m currently reading is Infernal Devices: Clockwork Angel which was recommended to me by my wonderful girlfriend who is also an avid reader). I’m not boasting about how many books I can read or anything (I read so much because my average work day allows me to fit that much reading in, unfortunately not everyone has this kind of available reading time). I am merely stating that I’m not coming from an uninformed stance when I say that it is important to make sure you make your book is compelling early on.
Of course, not all books merit this approach. There are exceptions (which is exactly why I don’t suggest the 3-Chapter Rule as a “hard rule”). The Hobbit was one of these that broke the “rule” for me. For some people it is a book that hooks you from the first chapter. For me it took almost 7 chapters. Why it took so long is not really the point of this article (though feel free to ask me as I will gladly answer). The reason I was able to stick it out that long without giving up on the book is mostly due to its popularity. I knew that there had to be some reason why so many people loved this book. Not to mention it being in my favourite genre of fiction. So I stuck it out and I’m glad I did.
So in conclusion: Try to make your story compelling within the first 3 chapters of your novel. Most books should be able to draw you in and hook you within the first 3 chapters (though, of course there are exceptions to this). If you are not willing to continue reading a book after 3 chapters because it hasn’t hooked you, that is totally fine, but don’t expect your readers to not do the same to your book if they aren’t hooked by chapter 3 either. As readers we should expect most books to hold to this rule and as writers we should be responsible in enforcing this rule within our own work.
Agree or disagree? Let me know!