They seem so innocent when scattered through someone else’s work, but carving out your own can be overwhelming. In every single beginners’ writing class I’ve given, this question has come up: how long should my chapters be?
Diving into novel writing can be quite daunting. As well as coaxing your story out and down on paper, you soon realise there are things you used to take for granted that you now have to understand. One of these concepts is chapters.
As children of generation ‘just Google it’, we’re used to everything having an answer. We want our information to be simple and easily accessible, no matter how complex our question is. This may be frustrating when you venture into the world of creative writing. Every single rule is fluid, flexible and has exceptions – and, more often than not, there is no rule at all.
Make conscious choices about chapter length
Often, I see new writers try to hit the same word count for each chapter in their story, but this is missing out on a huge opportunity to make the chapters do some work. As readers, we are trained to think of everything that happens within one chapter as one ‘step’ in the narrative. We don’t mind a chapter being longer or shorter than the last, as long as the end of it is firm ground from which to dive into the next.
If the action is high, allow your chapter to stretch on if that’s what it needs. Let the reader run for their lives and get out of breath along with your characters; don’t let them take a break while your characters are still running.
If your main character is going through a major panic attack or suffering great loss, a one-sentence chapter may highlight the feeling of the world closing in. The mental ‘break’ before and after this single sentence will add to its impact, allowing your reader to feel the soreness or grandness of the emotion.
This is all in your hands; the trick is to be conscious of what your chapter break is doing for you.
Chapter breaks are tools
Truth be told, your novel doesn’t need chapters. It is perfectly possible to write brilliant literature without them. Sir Terry Pratchett didn’t use chapters in most of his Discworld series, but he still sold more than 85 million copies of his books. In an interview by Gary J. Grant, he said he didn’t use chapters in his novels because life doesn’t happen in chapters. He then said:
I can see what their purpose is in children’s books (‘I’ll read to the end of the chapter, and then you must go to sleep’) but I’m blessed if I know what function they serve in books for adults.
However, where Terry Pratchett manages with nothing but section breaks, using chapters is a far better option for most of us. But the chapters are there to serve you – the author – not to fulfil some divine minimum quota of how many parts your novel must be presented in. Chapters are nothing but tools, and they perform three specific tasks:
- They help control the pacing of your story by creating gaps, sections and breaks in the narrative.
- They help you show a larger shift in time or space – we have an easier time accepting days or months passing between chapters than scenes.
- They provide the reader with a natural place to put the book down. This may sound like a bad thing, but when you know where your reader is likely to put your book down, you can make the lead-up so enticing that they won’t want to.
So, how long should your chapter be?
Look at some of your favourite books and consider how chapters are used in them. Look at chapter titles, and how they relate to the content of the chapter and the story as a whole. There are many clever writing tricks to learn from studying what makes you excited as a reader.
When you need to split your own work into chapters, let the narration decide where they need to be. As annoying as it may be when all you want is a number to work from, the answer to the big question is as simple as it is unhelpful. The chapter should be exactly as long as it needs to be. Not a single word more. Not a single word less.
The good news is: you decide.