The question of chapter length comes up often in writing discussions and forums.
There exists no single correct answer, of course, other than “it depends” or “as long as it takes.” Not much help even though accurate.
Here are a couple things to consider about chapter length when writing and revising:
As a reader, my comfort level is greater when chapters are shorter, or at least broken up (indicated by the pound sign centered between paragraphs on the manuscript itself). I think many people feel the same way.
People have short blocks of time to read, while commuting, waiting for their kids to be released from school, or between other tasks that need attention—short sections give the book a faster, sprint-like pace while offering a “break spot” when a distraction interrupts them.
When that happens, the reader needs to be able to say, “Just a minute,” to get to the next section. People cringe and get all squirmy when disrupted in the middle of a sentence or paragraph—how do I bookmark that spot?
Shorter Keeps the Story Moving
Novel pacing wreaks havoc on many otherwise magical tales. Within the fantasy genre especially, long block-filled pages can drone on and on into 20,000-word chapters, the reader lost in a maze of unpronounceable names and moment-to-moment expression changes.
Writing shorter chapters—and sections within chapters which may act as transition or a new viewpoint character—speeds up the protagonist’s chase to their goal, propelling the reader forward so that, if not disturbed, they lose sleep cuddled up with a page-turner.
Those reasons alone are not a convincing case for shorter chapters, though.
Each chapter ideally should incorporate a character goal, tension, and action embraced by both. The action can be as simple as a conversation, which shouldn’t be simple at all.
The average chapter length reflects the short story norm, 2,500-5,000 words, an appropriate number of words to introduce a character, their goal, conflicts, and resolution . . . just like in a story.
Rather than thinking about the length of a chapter by number of words, consider what should happen within each chapter.
A chapter opens with the hero needing information (chapter goal); what follows are actions taken (and the obstacles faced) to get the needed information, but it doesn’t work out as they had hoped (tension). That is a good place to end a chapter.
The purpose of a chapter is to push the character into the next where more problems await.
Each chapter plunges the character forward in their ultimate quest (story goal) to save the damsel, find the one responsible for the murder, or learn to be a better person. But within each story goal are smaller, more immediate goals that must be met, and that’s the purpose of chapters.
Think of chapters as mini-stories.
Consider an hour long TV drama. Within that hour (maybe 45 minutes considering commercials) there are breaks, at minimum, between Act I and Act II, and Act II and Act III, and often Act III has a break between the climax and the credits.
What happens in those acts on a TV show? Characters are introduced, pressing problems arise, roadblocks inhibit forward movement, and a disaster . . . and now a word from our sponsors. That’s a chapter.
Not all chapters have to end in disaster (commonly called a cliff-hanger) and definitely shouldn’t or it gives the reader a “cry wolf” attitude, thereby reducing the impact of a true surprise moment. Use sparingly and save for those special plot instances.
Every chapter should incorporate at least one “reveal” moment, that is, something new about the character, their problem, or the plot. As with all fiction, words not relating to one of these topics need to be cut to move the story forward in some way.
There is no best answer for how many words a chapter should be, as long as you successfully introduce a character with a goal hurdling problems to reach a point where they start over again in the next chapter.
See you on the next page,
“I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.” ~Norman Mailer
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