5 02 2010
How Long is a Chapter?
How long should your chapters be?
I can’t resist… I have to say it. “How long is piece of string?”
Of course, that smart-aleck answer is of no use to you whatsoever if you’re sitting there, frozen over the keyboard, wondering where you should end Chapter One and start typing ‘Chapter Two’.
Fact: Some books have chapters that are only a page or two long. These are not necessarily short storybooks for children, either. I just plucked “Cat And Mouse”, a thriller by James Patterson, from my bookshelves. This 342-page novel has 130 chapters. Most chapters vary from just over one page to 3 pages in length – on average, 2 pages per chapter. There’s a lot of white space at the end of most chapters, too! Patterson’s chapters are actually very short scenes (or sequels to scenes).
Fact: The length of your chapters may depend on whether you’re following genre guidelines. For example, check out several category romances by Harlequin, and you’ll find that they tend to have around the same number of chapters. Educational publishers often are very prescriptive about chapter length (e.g. “These books will be approximately 3,500 words long, divided into chapters of 350-400 words”).
Fact: Some books don’t seem to have any chapters. They are divided into “Part One”, “Part Two”, “Part Three” etc and each “Part” consists of a series of scenes. You may get 100 pages and 20 scenes, with a space between each scene, but no chapters at all. Some readers find this very annoying – they like to stop reading at the end of a chapter! (Consider your own reading habits. How often do you slip a bookmark in at the end of a chapter, rather than at the end of a scene?)
Think “Scene”, Not “Chapter”
Unless you are working to a set of guidelines issued by the publisher, stop fretting about chapter length and start thinking in terms of scenes. You plan each scene to move the story forward (like scenes in a movie). You don’t finish a scene until you have achieved what you set out to do.
A chapter, however, can begin and end anywhere you like. You can break a chapter in the middle of a conversation. This is one way to get your reader turning the page instead of stopping for the night – they *have* to find out how things played out!
“I have no idea who he was,” Kane insisted. “He just came up to me in the car park and started asking questions. Thought I was someone else.”
Jasmine stared at his open, concerned face; at the complete puzzlement in his eyes. “You’d never seen him before? Not ever?”
Jasmine swallowed hard. He was one of the best liars she’d ever encountered. Even now that she knew his real background, she couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow she must have got it wrong. Not Kane…
“Jas?” Kane’s eyes had narrowed slightly. “What is all this?” She glanced down at his hand on her arm, numbed. If she couldn’t be just as good an actor as he was, she was in the worst trouble of her life.
“Jasmine?” Kane’s grip tightened.
She glanced up at him, raw fear making it easy to summon tears. “I’m really sorry. When he started raving about that girl, I thought…”
“You thought what?” Kane’s mask slipped for a fraction of a second, and a glint of ice in his gaze made her blood freeze before he covered with a familiar baffled grin. “What?”
“I thought you must have been having an…” she bit her lip, “…an affair.”
“An affair?” Back on sure ground, Kane laughed and folded her in his arms.
And so on. In this case, it was effective to put a chapter break in the middle of their scene of dialogue, because Jasmine has just realised that Kane is not what he seems and she’s in big trouble. It’s likely the reader will turn the page to see if she can get herself out of trouble.
Should Chapters All Be The Same Length?
No. Chapters can vary enormously in length. It can be very effective to have a 20-page chapter followed by one of just two pages, if you need to establish a quick bit of background or briefly show what another character is up to.
Children’s books are more likely to have chapters of similar lengths than adult novels. The length of your chapters will depend on the finished length of your book. If I’m writing an early reader of, say, 2,000 words, I’d probably aim for about 7 chapters of 300 words each. However, it might work better to do 5 chapters of 400 words. I usually write a book of this length as a short story, then go back and look for good places to break the text. One chapter could be 350 words, and the next 420 words.
If I were writing a book for older children – say, 20,000 words – then 10-15 chapters between 1500 words and 2000 words could work well.
Chapter length is not really important. What *does* count is how well you keep the reader’s attention in the current scene. Again, tap into your own reading experience. If the story has you totally absorbed, you’ll keep reading no matter what length the chapters are.
How Do You Decide Where To Put a Chapter Break?
This is easy, really. If you’re writing a short book for children, go through your story and draw a line across the page at a tense moment. Look for places where some sort of question is raised, where a decision has to be made, or action is about to happen. Obviously, readers will want to keep reading to find out what happens! You may have to rewrite the last few lines before and after a chapter break, or add a line, to make it read more smoothly.
What if you find that there are not many places where you can do this?
This is a good thing. You have probably discovered that there is not enough tension or conflict in your story. Go back and put it in. This way, you’re working out the chapter breaks and improving the pacing and plot as well.
For adult novels: if your chapter seems to be interminable, go back and look for a good place to break it. The same applies here as it did to writing a children’s book. If it all seems too ‘even’, you probably need to work on the pacing anyway.
You’ll find that after a while, you develop an instinct about where to end one chapter and begin another. Don’t forget the value of research – grab a couple of books by your favourite authors and see how they have handled this. It isn’t necessary that every chapter end with a cliff-hanger, but you should ‘write up’ to the end of a chapter – leave the reader wanting to know more.
Simple, really. End your chapter in a place that is guaranteed to have your readers asking the age-old question that keeps popular authors rich and readers buying books: “What happens next?”
(c) Copyright Marg McAlister
Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers’ tipsheet at http://www.writing4success.com/