Having briefly discussed text breaks, I thought it only made sense to look into chapter length. It is also something that has come up in my writing class and I find it interesting how much the opinions differ.
I’ve read very many new and interesting books this year. Many by authors I’ve never encountered before and it has exposed me to several writing styles and voices. That is a good thing. After all, it’s impossible for me to call myself a writer with any sort of expectation of credibility without exposing myself to my contemporaries. To the competition. To my role models.
Chapters, as I mentioned last week don’t always feature in a novel; there may be text breaks. In a novel that is broken into chapters they can vary from long to short. From moody, to comedic. From one POV to another. Similar to a text break, I suppose what matters most is what you want your chapter to achieve.
In my own writing, again, this varies, but I have noticed a a consistency when it comes to chapter length. In novels which do have chapters, I tend to write them at about the 2,000 word mark. Is this a magical number? Sometimes in class and again with the Phoenix Writers, it seems that 2k is a nice round number and that it’s rather popular. My own investigations (mainly through extensive reading) tells me that 2,000 words is just about enough to grab a reader’s interest and to give the author time to build up an interesting scene. It also seemed to be the sweet spot before my attention began to wander. Not off the book, but to other characters; what was that guy doing? Where is the woman with the talking dog? Can we go back to that pirate and his elocution lessons? …that sort of thing.
But what do you want your chapter to do? Is it designed to carry your reader gently from one plot point to the next? Or do you intend to slap your reader with a new twist with all the force of a hurled wet fish? Do you want to seduce them into the intricate layers of your sub plots, or do you want to tickle their funny bone with delicious turns of phrase? What you want to do, dictates chapter length; I’ve no doubt about that.
If, through your chapter, you want to work in a little exposition, transition your characters from one place to another, then a longer chapter may suit your needs. Perhaps even as far as 4,000 words. However, if you want to ratchet up the pace and drag your readers onto the roller coaster of a long awaited action scene, then a shorter chapter may help not only to showcase the change in pace, but make it palpable too. Just as shorter, punchier sentences can add a sense of urgency to a paragraph, short chapters can do the same thing to the whole novel. Compare it to the long, laborious climb to the top of a snowy hill, followed by the hair raising race to the bottom on your sled (or in my case, black bin bag).
The same also applies to manipulating emotions. You may want to take advantage of a mid-length chapter for emotions like fear or sorrow, but for excitement or anger, a short, explosion of a chapter will really pop in the reader’s face. It will also keep them turning the pages.
What do you think? Do you use chapter length to guide the pace and tone of your novel, or, like me, do you tend to stick to a regular formula of so-many-words-per-chapter?