Chapter Length


black notebook and red pencil from OpenClipArtHaving 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?

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About Ileandra Young

I'm a thirty-*mumbles* year old (purple loving, cheese worshipping) author of fantasy, juggling a pair of beautiful twin boys with my burning desire to make up stories and write them all down. When I get the chance, I play games, listen to music, and in days long past I even ran a radio show. Though I occasionally write non-fiction, my heart lives in fantasy and my debut novel, Silk Over Razor Blades is now available through Amazon along with part two of the trilogy, Walking The Razor's Edge.
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16 Responses to Chapter Length

  1. Good advice for me, I’ve wondered about how long my chapters should be. I’ve gotten a lot further in my book then ever before, still days of not writing have left me wondering if I put to much pressure on myself. So I’ve turned to just writing without worrying about the flow in my rough draft. The second draft is where I’m doing the fine tuning. In the meantime I’m working more on my poetry. I have too many things I like to do, sometimes I go out and work on my photography. Then my a new idea for my next art piece begs to be put on paper or canvas.

    I’ve started a WordPress using it to work on my Bipolar journal. Maybe I have to many irons in the fire lol, but it’s who I am and I can’t deny which ever one demands attention.

    Thanks for leaving the comment over at my Deconstructing Blog! I’ve given both my sites the same name. It’s all part of my journey getting through my walls of illusions built to protect.

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    • I certainly understand the feeling of having a lot on the go all at once. I really do feel that folk with a creative mind suffer from that a lot, simply because their mind is constantly coming up with new, cool stuff!

      I’m glad you found this entry helpful and you’re not alone in giving thought to the days you don’t write. I think you have the right attitude towards it anyway and remember (!) every word you do get down is a victory, no matter how small. I certainly agree with leaving the fine tuning to later drafts; it’s freeing and strips away all the restrictions around getting the first draft down. Words first, then polish!

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  2. I have extremely long chapters right now in my historical novel, and while I think they suit the content and pacing, I’m considering breaking them up into a few pieces if not many. Oscar and Lucinda (also historical fiction) uses chapter breaks instead of space breaks and that’s surprisingly effective.

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    • I don’t think I’ve ever read any historical fiction, so I don’t know if that’s just the style. Still… whatever works for you is what works for you to get the words down. Then, later, if you feel the need to break things up, then there’s plenty of opportunity to do that. 🙂

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      • Getting the words down is enough for me right now! I really enjoyed your post because it got me thinking about length, which is something I have been thinking about vaguely as my chapters keep getting longer. I haven’t done a word count on any of them, but once I get more of draft two done, I will try that as I’m deciding what to do.

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        • It will be interesting to see what you find. Are chapters longer as the action gets more intense, or is it just more description? Could be a really interesting study. I hope you’ll let me know what you find? 🙂

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  3. jmmcdowell says:

    Chapter length isn’t something I consciously think about as I’m writing. I’ll create them during the drafting, but they can get shifted around and change in length as I revise. Personally, I’m not a fan of many short chapters (such as 1 or 2 pages in length), but I don’t like them to be overly long, either. Mine tend to range between 1,500 and 4,000 words. I enjoy having time to catch my breath after reading one, even if it’s just a short one before diving into the next chapter to see what happens next. 😉

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    • I think that in the past I have been distracted by finding suitable chapter ends while doing a first draft. I’ve learned since then that people are right when they saw concentrate on writing first. Since then I’ve found it must easier to decide where the ends are.

      I think 1,500 – 4,000 is a good range. It suits my attention span at least. I’ve no idea what that it in book pages, but it sounds about right.

      A far step away from my very, very first novel where chapters were about 900 words!

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  4. In my first book, Drasmyr, all the chapters were pretty short, rarely being more than 10 pages. The book was about 430 pages long, had 39 chapters, an Epilogue, and a Prologue. In later books, I tried to force the writing to make longer chapters with only mediocre results. I’ve since learned, I think, that each chapter is it’s own appropriate length. In the book I’m currently working on, they range from 11 pages to 26. Sometimes you say all you need to say in a few short pages; other times, you have to elucidate a bit more.
    On a side note:
    You’ve Been Nominated
    Hi. I just nominated you for a Very Inspiring Blog Award. Not sure of the exact rules, who started it, or where to find the exact rules. I think you are supposed to nominate 15 other blogs when you accept (kind of like chain letter/pyramid type advertising) but I know I won’t be advertising that many). Anyway, it only serves to help promote your blog. For more info, check out the appropriate post at my site on A Toast To Dragons. (The pasting of links hasn’t work on the last couple of sites, so in case it fails on yours, here’s the url: http://www.atoasttodragons.com).

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  5. susankarins says:

    My chapters are between 2,000-2,300. I’ve never consciously thought about it until I was done with my first novel. Now with NaNoWriMo it suits my daily word count of 2273 almost perfectly, so I can’t complain:-) I like the 2k chapter length. If chapters are longer than that I’m like you, my mind wanders off to other characters or happenings.

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    • I think chapters was part of the problem when I was reading The Lord Of The Rings. I was just thinking about how hard it was to read the first time around. Because its all sectioned into six books, you have to go through a whole novel before catching up on other characters! Drove me nuts. There are plenty of breaks, but the chapters do seem a little long.

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