When 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.
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?
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.