Considering Chapter Length
Ah, chapter length, the place that bogs down so many writers. “What’s an ideal chapter length?” Or they might ask, “How long should a chapter be?”
And I have often told people: the ideal chapter length is whatever you are writing. But maybe that’s not quite right?
Don’t worry. I’ll explain.
Talking About Chapters
So, the bottom line is, we need to first talk about writing chapters.
What are chapters? Wikipedia (not always the best source but this is fine) says:
A chapter (capitula in Latin; sommaires in French) is any of the main thematic divisions within a writing of relative length, such as a book of prose, poetry, or law. A chapter book may have multiple chapters that respectively comprise discrete topics or themes. In each case, chapters can be numbered, titled, or both.
So, what we are talking about here is quite simply a piece of a larger work.
Starting a Chapter
I have started chapters (beyond the first one, which is different) in any number of ways. So, here’s the current first paragraph of the second chapter of The Obolonk Murders:
The HQ was a large, nondescript governmental building, much in the style of governmental buildings for decades, if not centuries. It had once been Boston’s City Hall. The office was bustling but they bypassed all of that as Peri led the way to Dolan’s office. Dolan was there, in all his five hundred pounds of glory. “Ah, Detective Sergeant Martin! And you brought Detective, er, why don’t you close the door and we can talk?”
Peri is a cop in the future, and has just gotten her non-human partner. The initial purpose of this chapter is obvious from the first paragraph. It’s to get her and her new partner to headquarters. I introduce new characters (such as Dennis Dolan) and it seems pretty obvious that the characters will talk about the case.
Which they do a bit. But since the chapter has more than one scene, it also switches over to Peri’s high rise apartment. So, does a chapter have to cover more than one scene? Not necessarily. But if you move from scene to scene, you’ll either need transitional language or a scene break. Usually three asterisks (***) works best. I’ve never liked the idea of just adding a second empty line. If you read a piece on mobile, that subtlety might not carry over. But three asterisks are pretty obvious.
So, What is the Chapter Length of That One?
Right now, it’s 3,538 words, and runs for a good 20 pages. But the line spacing is odd on that one and I need to fix it. I suspect it’s really closer to 13 – 15 pages, maybe fewer. And I know I need to edit it. But the chapter covers some good ground. They meet Dennis and talk about the case. The computers at HQ are attacked and Peri hears from a terrorist for the first time. Then, she and her robot partner go to her apartment which they find has been ransacked.
The scenes move along at a decent clip, and I like them all together like this. But like I said, I have to edit it. Still, I like the frenetic pace. It runs from a sit-down meet and greet to eventually Peri getting angry about what’s happened to her home. Hence, within this chapter, Peri transitions from semi-overconfident to having the case personally affect her.
How Does This Chapter End?
The final paragraph is:
“Yeah,” she nodded. “C’mon, we’re going to a motel. We can get this cleaned this up later. But let me toss a few things down the laundry chute. I’ll need some clothes soon.”
Much like Peri throws her clothes down a chute, the end of this paragraph has one purpose. That purpose is to start the reader down a chute. Where’s the end of the chute? Why, it’s in the first paragraph of Chapter 3, of course.
Teasing the Next Chapter as a Part of Chapter Length
Can’t recall where I heard this, but chapters should be like teasing your annoying little brother. That is, you keep the absolute end just out of reach and don’t add it until the next one. Think of it like movie posters and book covers for romance, where the couple is just about to kiss.
Of course, this is particularly key when you are ending Book 1 and need to get the reader interested in Book 2, its sequel. If you’re not writing a standalone, you have got to make getting to the next book irresistible to the reader.
In a way, it’s like a call to action when you write advertising. What’s the action you want your reader to take? It’s to be so drawn in and so curious about what happens next that they can’t wait to order (or preorder) the next book in the series
Without getting into spoiler territory, this book ends with Peri becoming overconfident again. And at the last moment, she’s knocked down several pegs. The book comes full circle, and the reader should be (I hope!) invested enough to want to get to Book 2, The Polymer Beat.
Genres and Chapter Length
When it comes to chapter length, a chapter still should be the best length for serving the story. But there are some caveats to this.
There are genre-related numbers but they are guidelines. Still, paying attention to that is a part of better serving your audience/market. And why do we want to better serve our readers? Because it makes them want to continue reading!
And think about the standard pacing within your genre. A mystery or a thriller tends to have short chapters because the pacing needs to be tight. But for fantasy, you’ve got some room to spread out. Science fiction tends to run to the longer side of things but mixes things up. Describing a sci fi world may mean a lot of detail. Hence, a longer chapter length. But a fight scene, if it’s the only thing in a chapter, will likely have to be snappy and quick.
What Happens When Chapter Length is Too Long?
All of this gets me back to chapter endings. Ending chapters with a little bit that isn’t said can also serve as a model for writing all of a chapter. When your chapter length is too damned long, consider the following:
Maybe you’re explaining things too much. Maybe your characters are too slow to make decisions, and it’s bogging down the action. Or maybe you’ve got a character who you can do without.
Consider how NaNoWriMo can also affect how we write. I know it affects my own work. Wanting to make word count at all costs can mean front loading a book. It can also mean oppressive dialogue and extra characters. Meandering is great for word count. But it also adds to chapter length. And it’s often the kind of addition that isn’t necessary.
Arguments. Descriptions. Directions. Side trips. Detours. Virtually any book will be better if you cut these down. And maybe even eliminate some of them. Also, consider the fluff of normal speech. We hesitate with er, em, huh, etc. And we also say please and thank you a lot. A polite character is one thing. But you don’t need to underscore their good manners on every page.
What Happens When Chapter Length is Too Short?
Well, you might just be okay. But consider this. If a chapter or any other part of a book feels too long, why is that so? It could mean you’re glossing over explanations. And it could mean you’re not doing the heavy lifting of description. Do you need to describe present-day Detroit in excruciating detail? Probably not. But 2528 Callisto? You’d better believe you need to show this to your readers.
So, consider the shortening ideas above. But this time, in reverse. Do characters make decisions too quickly? Are descriptors too straightforward? Do directions and journeys always go in a perfectly straight line?
Or you could see if you’d do better to combine two chapters. Another idea is: do nothing. That’s right. Nada! And it may just turn out to be the best thing you can do.
Chapter Length and Serving Your Readers
And one more quick thing. Think about how so many of us are pressed for time. A lot of people read while commuting or right before bed. In both cases, shorter chapters serve the reader better.