Monday, 3 August 2015

When looking at writing tips and forums the same questions repeatedly come up, it seems every budding author wants to know how long their chapters should be. There's lots of good advice out there but often extremely contradictory. I'm going to do my best to add to the conversation in a constructive way, talking about my preferences and some things you may not have thought of.

Let's get to length first, as this will lead onto other considerations.  So how long should a chapter be? Some articles will gladly tell you that they can be as short or as long as you like, which is fine, it's your book after all, but it doesn't really help you to understand why your book might be better with a particular length of chapter.


Firstly, put yourself in the shoes of a reader of your book. How long might they have to read each day? It might be as little as half an hour, so a chapter would ideally be shorter than that.  In practice most fiction has chapters of between 2000 words (short) and 5000 words (long).  Any longer than 5000 is likely to feel like a very long chapter to the reader, particularly if they are used to 2500 word chapters throughout the book.

It may be more important that your chapters are all roughly the same length, give or take 1000 words or so.  The odd short chapter is fine and unlikely to upset anybody, but there is some logic to having all chapters between 2500 and 3000 words for example. Doing so can help the flow of the novel, ensuring it remains steadily paced and consistently so. Of course a very descriptive and slow paced scene may need to be short to keep the reader's attention, and an all action scene can be long without putting off the reader.

The other advantage to consistent chapter lengths is that it can help you with the planning of the novel. You may wish to reveal something interesting, or make a relevant plot development every 3000 words for example. It's generally best not to have too many 'dead chapters' where there's very little plot advancement. Having consistent lengths also helps for building tension and staging cliffhangers as the reader intuitively knows the chapter is coming to a close and senses that they may not get a resolution until later in the book.

Also you should consider your novel's timeline and how time flows in the book. If you want to show a kidnapper's morning from 9am – 11am and then the same timeframe for the detective investigating the case, you wouldn't expect the chapter lengths to be wildly different. Otherwise it will feel like the detective has twice the amount of time to work things out than the kidnapper.

It has become common practice to break chapters with a symbolic notation on the page, usually *****'s or similar. This is useful when you want to change location, time, or narrator for example, without breaking the chapter. Perhaps because the tone or topic is the same, two people in different locations are processing the same information or going through the same situation.  As a result it's not longer necessary to change chapter every time you move locations or swap to a different character's point of view.

Having an idea of how long you'd ideally like your chapters to be can also help you write concisely and efficiently. You could try asking yourself what you hope to achieve before writing each chapter. Not just plot development but character development, or what feelings you hope to elicit from the reader. That way if you only have 2000 words to describe the action but it's your intention to tug at the reader's heartstrings, you can use some of your chapter's 'word allowance' to include more vivid descriptions or emotive passages.

Of course you should only have these things in the back of your mind while writing your first draft, the process of splitting a novel into chapters is sometimes best done at the editing stage. It's then that you can move whole scenes from one chapter to another in order to achieve a better flow to the story.  You shouldn't concern yourself too much with word lengths themselves but more with what they can represent. A slowing down in pace, overly descriptive scenes, 'dead chapters' with no story progression etc.

The best books treat chapters as storyline goals and reader reactions. I personally prefer mini-cliffhangers, something that gives enough closure to allow you to put the book down, but enough intrigue to ensure you'll pick it back up again.

“The views expressed in this article do not represent those of mjmeads.com and any inference to books or authors past or present is purely coincidental.”

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