Thursday, July 17, 2014

Q&A: How long should my chapters be?

The author at work
When I first started writing seriously, trying to write my first book, I wasn't systematic or very technical at all.  I was only interested in putting the thoughts and story on paper (so to speak) and not the ideal method.

I didn't really know anything about formatting or details such as indenting, story length, typical structures like 3 acts, chapter formation and so on.  I just wrote.  After a while I started to wonder about some of this stuff, and in particular chapter length.

As I was writing this first work, for "National Novel Writing Month" in 2008, I was posting on my other blog about the effort and here's what I wrote one day:
Just a short chapter today. I have often wondered what makes for chapters, how do you define one? The Bible has apparently random chapter breaks, some writers have as little as one sentence in a chapter, while writers such as Patrick O'Brian have chapters that go on for 50 pages sometimes. Is it defined by a shift in the scene? A significant break in the plot? I figure to use them as a way to pause, a definite break defining either a lapse in time or a place I want readers to pause a bit in their imagination or be able to set the book down without a jarring interruption in the story.
For me the writing has always been about instinct and flow rather than technical details, even to this day.  I don't count words, I don't set word goals, I don't worry about numbers and measurements.  Each book I've finished so far has been around 90,000 words and around 20 chapters, coincidentally but not by design.

Some do though, they worry about word counts and length of chapters in terms of pages and words, and so on.  And in writer's groups I've been in, I have seen the question come up several times: how long should a chapter be?

As you can see in the above quote, I think more in terms of concept than measurement: what makes a chapter, how is it defined?  But the two questions are very closely related.  It all comes down to when and where you should have chapter breaks.

Looking at existing printed novels can be little help in terms of length.  In Something Wicked This Way Comes, chapter 31 -- the whole chapter -- is only these words:

"Nothing much else happened that night."

Some chapters are even shorter.  On the other hand, authors such as Patrick O'Brian have chapters than can go for a substantial portion of the book, with dozens of pages.  The length of a good chapter cannot really be quantified in terms of word counts or pages; its not about some mathematical formula at all.

Authors such as Kurt Vonnegut wrote short chapters that were much like a stand up comedian's joke structure: set up, development, punchline.  Others tell mini stories, almost short stories each chapter which have an arc and a conclusion within the overall story.

Each chapter should be somewhat self-contained within the larger structure of the book, in other words.  It should have finished a scene, a portion of the story that is a complete package, or otherwise have a sense of totality to it without being the whole book.  Chapters will, in most cases, lend themselves to natural breaks because they've reached a sort of conclusion.

Sly takes things too literally
Another way to look at chapter breaks is the example of television shows.  The chapter can be considered a section of the overall story that leads to the commercial break.  TV shows are specifically written to include the ad breaks, so they will tend to wrap up a scene, end with a hard hitting image or emotional event, or leave you with a joke (CSI does this a lot with the intro) or cliffhanger.

Thus, the chapter has a break point to it, a spot at which you stop and give the reader a rest.  This sort of thing works well for changing pacing (say, from a romantic interlude to a suspenseful episode, or from combat to narrative).  The act of a chapter stopping and a new one beginning creates a break in the reader's mind, allowing them to more comfortably shift gears.

Chapter breaks also work well for forcing a sense of the passage of time.  If you have a portion of the book where a significant amount of time passes without anything interesting or useful to the story happening, its usually better to use the chapter break as a way of signifying that rather than doing it within a chapter.  Like panels between comic book images or a device such as calendar pages flipping over in a movie, you give a sense of time passing with the chapter break.  The character goes to sleep.  Chapter 2, wakes up and the next portion of the story starts.

Chapter breaks also work well for shifting point of view or narrative.  You don't have to do this, often a break in the text with a divider such as this:

******

will suffice to shift perspective to another character.  However, by moving to another chapter, readers can more easily adapt to the change in narration.  Chapter 1 was from the perspective of Bob, while Chapter 2 shifts to Bob's aunt Sally.

Finally, chapter breaks give readers a place to stop.  I'm sure you've been reading too late at night and thought "OK I have to sleep, once I finish this chapter."  Some people set reading goals of one chapter of an especially dense or difficult book a day, to get through it at a set pace.  Chapters are a device that help readers split up the book, and that device can help your readers appreciate your writing as well.

So how long is a chapter?  As long as it takes to reach your goal.  The word count and page count is irrelevant; its not a formula you plug in (unless you're writing a Hardy Boys or Harlequin Romance, then it really is a formula).  Write until you get to a good natural break, or need to shift things without it being jarring.  Ultimately its up to you.