Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chapter Length: what’s best?

Some authors draft 100,000 word novels and insert chapter breaks during their final edit. Others, like me, think in terms of chapters as we write.

I used to aim for a regimented 5,000 words per chapter, but in this post-Angels and Demons-era, that is too simplistic.

Plot crafters can look at chapters as self-contained sections, with a beginning, a middle, and an ending, just like the overall story arc. Each chapter can have a sense of unity or completeness. There are exceptions, such as the cliffhanger chapter ending, where the action is not ending. Chapter hooks are great…especially if the reader can peek ahead, see that the next chapter is only 10 pages long, and decide to trade precious minutes of sleep for finding out what happens next.

Chapters should not end in the middle of a scene or intense action. I tried this in one of my correspondence course assignments, and was instructed in bold black marker that it’s a red flag for rejection. It’s also unkind to the reader.

One new idea is to have chapters take between ten to fifteen minutes to read. This is often how much time people have during commutes or lunch breaks.

Beyond reader convenience, short chapters definitely convey a sense of faster pace. Long chapters hint that lovely, languid descriptions of settings, gowns and tea service are to follow.

White (blank) space on a printed page is savvy. Short paragraphs fit the times. The same can be said for chapters. Until the pendulum swings, and the next mega-seller has fifty-page chapters.


  1. My chapters vary between about 2,500 and 4,500 therefore average out at 3,500. (I just confirmed this with my 'writing progress' graph in the margin - 70333 words = 20 chapters = average 3516 per chapter!)
    I'm not sure they have a "beginning, middle and end", particularly if I'm using two, sometimes opposing) POVs during the chapter. I don't think readers want or need a sense of completeness in each chapter. IMO they want to be wondering just what is going to happen next!
    I do tend to use the cliff-hanger/page-turner ending a lot and I HAVE ended chapters at a dramatic point in the middle of a scene, so I'd disagree with your course assessor that it's a 'red-flag' for rejection! I did it several times in 'His Leading Lady' and also in 'Fragrance of Violets'.
    Agree that shorter chapters give a faster pace, and also shorter paragraphs with lots of white space, as you say. I tend to skim paragraphs which fill almost a full page (or more!).

  2. I always think in terms of chapters as well. It would feel strange to me to go back and try to force a break in after I'm finished with the story.

  3. I agree, Sylvia. I seem to find a natural break, often with a good hook, and that is where the chapters end themselves. I don't pay attention anymore to how long they are. Just the flow and what feels good. I plot now, and that step fits well with the flow.

  4. Paula, she cited me for ending a chapter mid-action. Being an attentive, suck-up-type student, I've never done it again.

  5. I couldn't go back and force a break either. I think in chapters.
    The natural break, with the good hook, is the best place to end the chapter IMO - even if it IS mid-action LOL!
    And I'll also go with what feels good - gut instinct wins every time!

  6. Ana,great post! Although I think each writer has to do what feels right to them. I tend to end my chapters where it "feels right" as well and use lots of cliff hangers (my critique partner helps with this) and I have on occasion (but not often) ended a chapter in the middle of a scene for affect. The only "rule" I try to stick to is approximately 3 scenes a chapter (although again, I tend to do what feels right).

  7. I tend to think in terms of chapters. Right now I'm nearing the end of my WIP, and I'm thinking, "Okay, I need a chapter to do this, one to do that, oh this part would be this chapter."

    I have put in a chapter break in the middle of intense action before. I even used one once just as the hero was lowering the heroine to the bed! I guess I do like a good cliff-hanger....

    Length of chapters really vary for me. Mine tend to range from 15 pages to 20 draft form. I guess it all depends on what needs to happen in that particular scene.

    And I agree...each is a little mini story unto itself...which then in turn fits into the overall story.

  8. I agree, Debra, what overrules all the 'rules' is what needs to happen in a chapter for the story.

    Jen, three scenes per chapter feels about right. It's good to "know the rules," and then break them when the story dictates.

    It's all about the story, isn't it.

  9. I create chapters based on scenes as I'm writing. However there is no uniform feel to my chapters - some are rather long, some are quite short. I'm concerned this will be an issue with an publisher, but I don't want to break up scenes.

  10. Hi Ana,

    A very interesting post: kind of makes one think, well, where exactly do my chapters end?

    To be honest I haven't thought about this at all. Most of mine air toward cliff-edges, sometimes at the point of toppling over...

    A chapter on the whole rolls much like a movie with 3 min scenes, 3 acts per scenario, but I guess that's because my novels are derived from overnight movie-like inspiration, and of course, influence of TV commercial slots. ;)

    I don't mind "a break" so long as the break provides character POV switch, and next chapter is not from the previous MC's POV: unless it's first-person POV.


  11. My chapters seem to be on the short side, although with my latest manuscript, they seem to vary between longer and short. But I just go with the feel of where the chapter should end, and label them as I'm plotting out the book.

  12. Raleigh, I think you are doing things right. It will be interesting to see a publisher's reaction, though with so much self-publishing going on, you may be your own boss!

    Susan, shorter is in favor now, but going with your gut is always best, IMO.

    Francine, your internal dream/moviemaking talent leaves me groveling in the dust. Still, if you use three 3-minutes scenes per chapter, that's about 9 minutes per. Sounds like a working woman-reader's dream.

  13. Hi Ana. I hadn't really thought about chapter length from a reader perspective until you said readers can peek ahead and see how long/short a next chapter is before deciding to go to sleep. I do that! But as a writer I try to keep my chapters in a 50K novel between 12-18 pages (not in a single book, however), or 11-12 chapters. In one book I might work in the 12-15 page chapter range while in another it may fall between 15-18 pages. I try to keep each chapter uniform to within 3-5 pages difference. It doesn't always work since a scene may demand a bit more or less, but I do try for uniformity overall. I don't go by time reading, word count, or other themes. It's mostly gut guessing and going with what feels right at the time, and for that book.