Authors Want to Know: What Is a Chapter?

the chapter size and length train by gordon longWhen the minions sit around the gruel pot chewing the crunchy bits, sometimes we get going on the esoterica of writing, subjects like, “How long is a chapter?” is it all right to use ‘alright’?” Or, more appropriate, given the food intake in this joint, “How do you spell ‘diorhhea’ ‘dihorhea’ ‘diorhea’… ‘the trots?”

When it comes to the length of a chapter, I think that’s a bit of a red herring. It’s not how long the chapter is; it’s what the chapter is there for. We break our writing into sentences, clauses and phrases for specific reasons, usually to do with conveying meaning. Likewise, we break novels into chapters.

Why?

In theatre, a scene continues until there is a change in setting or a major change in characters. Because novels can switch characters or setting at the turn of a page, this is not so strict, but the same principles apply; readers need the story broken into readable chunks. How do we decide where the “chunks” should break?

Emotional Arc

In the structure of the story arc, a chapter is an emotional unit and a plot unit. Your chapter should be a small story that takes the reader through an emotional experience and at the same time moves both the emotional journey and the plot of the whole book along.

Blake Snyder in Save the Cat says that a scene should start with one emotion and end on another, or start with a positive or negative emotion, and end with its opposite. This is rather prescriptive, but it’s a good start. If you have a section in your novel that doesn’t seem to be rolling very well, check the emotions in each chapter. If you find a chapter where the action has a beginning, middle and end but the emotions don’t go anywhere, maybe that shouldn’t be a chapter. Perhaps it’s only action for the sake of action (which is fine, as long as you’re doing it on purpose).

On Chapter Length

Secretly recording the gruel-pot conversation the other day, I got…

“The ideal is that chapters be in reasonable-sized chunks and that you have breaks within the chapters at reasonable places as well, especially if your chapters tend to be longish.”

“I use short sentences, short paragraphs, and short chapters to make the book feel more propulsive and because so many people read on their phone, where long paras and chapters can feel like such a slog.”

“If your chapter is dragging, they’re going to be like, ‘How long is this f***ing chapter?’ But that has more to do with writing than chapter length.”

“I don’t think readers notice or care.”

“I’m not sure this is something I even notice when I’m reading. I think you guys are overthinking and trying to find yourself something to worry about…”

Take those opinions as you will, considering the source.

What Is the Effect?

Personally, I do concern myself with chapter length. I try to keep them fairly even, mostly as a courtesy to readers and as a touch of professionalism, but my chapters can still range from 2K to 5K words, the longer ones usually with breaks. But for the most part, I try to set the length of the chapter by the effect I want: short, quick chapters to increase tension at climax points, longer, slower chapters for the “feel good” sections. I usually put a few quick ones at the beginning of the book to attract prospective readers.

The Message is Clear

Authors are more concerned with how the chapter fits in the emotional flow of their story than they are with its length. Those who do think about chapter length are more likely to be using it as a way of controlling the tempo and the suspense. Be conscious of the length of a chapter only because of its effect on the reader’s feelings.

Think of your chapters like a line of railway cars. It is convenient if they are similar in length, but more important that each be a complete unit in itself, firmly linked to the car in front and the car behind, and pulling its weight so the whole train can move ahead.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

10 thoughts on “Authors Want to Know: What Is a Chapter?”

  1. Hello, Gordon:

    Chapters … I look at it this way. A chapter is as long as I feel or choose it to be. I don’t plan much.

    The longest I’ve written is over 16,000 words. The shortest is 227 words; it was one of several similarly brief chapters that covered a rather harrowing day for my lead character/narrator.

    I don’t decide what the word length a chapter is likely to be. I let it fall where it seems to me to fall.

    The old sub-editor still residing in my bosom likes to keep things tight. So in one of mine 116,000 words is broken up into 80 or so chapters of between 227 words and 3000.

    In the other one 137,00 or-so words is divided up into just over 30 mostly longish chapters.

    I’m not sure readers notice or care but I do hope there’s enough in the chapters to keep them turning the pages.

    In the last day or so I’ve just finished reading Metropolis, a novel by the late English writer Philip Kerr. It’s one of his Bernie Gunther books, and I found him only this year.

    What I found interesting is that Metropolis has only three chapters. The first is more than 130 pages long.

    One last thing: in my books ‘alright’ is always ‘all right’.

    Cheers

    – Paul Corrigan

    1. Paul, your experience seems to match with the other writers: it’s the effect on the reader that counts.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence on “all right!”

  2. I tend to aim for about 10 MS pages, which works out in the vicinity of 3,000 words, but I don’t obsess over it. Some chapters will be longer, some shorter. In the main, I just go by what feels right.

    My shortest chapter so far was probably less than 200 words. A number of well-known authors have gone short, too, including Stephen King, who probably holds the record with a chapter in “Misery” that reads “Rinse,” and Ray Bradbury in “Something Wicked This Way Comes” with “Nothing much else happened that night.”

    I’m not sure cases like this follow any obvious rules or guidelines. They probably just sounded “complete” to the author. And somehow, they do work.

    1. Dale, I think popular writers can get away with a little joke now and then, especially if it works.

      As you say, there are no rules about this. It’s being sure you know why you’re stopping one chapter and starting another.

  3. Hello Gordon,
    While I accept that chapter length is largely subjective and should be functional, I very much prefer shorter chapters for their sense of pacing. I remember reading Justin Cronin’s The Passage and blowing through his, in my opinion, short chapters with a feeling of accomplishment. The same was true of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. My own novel was written with mostly short, quick chapters for pacing and tension reasons and I feel it worked out well.

  4. I try to stay around ten double-spaced pages, but my objective is to end every chapter possible with a hook into the next. And it’s all right.

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