Chapter Length

This blog post comes by request: “I currently have a chapter that is only about seven sentences. Is that too short? How many words do there need to be to make a chapter a chapter?

The simple answer to those question would be: “No, that’s not too short” and “One, if that” but let’s dig into that a little further.

When it comes to chapter breaks, there aren’t any true rules. They can be as long or short as you want. In fact, you don’t even have to have chapters if you don’t wish to. It all comes down to what is right for your manuscript.

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In my own writing, I don’t bother with chapter breaks in my first draft. Since I tend to write out of order, it doesn’t make much sense to try to put them in on the first go around. Even if I am writing in order, I know enough will likely change come edits that entire chapters might go after the fact (In my latest novel, Raining Embers, what would have originally been the first three chapters were condensed to one, for example). Because of those overhauls, I personally just put in scene breaks when originally writing. Once I have a somewhat solid draft, I then go in and find scene breaks that work well as chapter breaks each about ten pages from the last.

Personally, I stick to relatively even chapters. Chapters, after all, are there to give readers periodic breaks. How you chose to do place your breaks, however, can affect your manuscripts quite a bit.

  • Steady, even chapters. My personal choice, mostly because even chapters of medium length (generally around 2,000 – 4,000 words or so) tend to draw the least amount of attention to themselves. Readers expect to find chapters, and quickly fall into a rhythm, so tend to read the story without too much thought given to the chapters. If you don’t want much attention drawn to chapter breaks, try this method.
  • Quick chapters. Quick chapters (generally under 2,000 words or so. Sometimes much shorter) are great for keeping pacing up. Thrillers and horror novels often keep their chapters on the shorter side of things to keep readers feeling like they’re flying through the action. Sometimes chapters will drop down to only a couple of pages (or even less) to achieve that goal. When mixed with medium-length or long chapters, they can also be used draw attention to something strange or especially shocking. If you want a sudden impact, a very short chapter in the middle of long and/or steady ones can be very effective. Note: Because it is shocking, however, use with caution. You will be drawing the reader’s attention to the chapter break along with the narrative which can backfire if not done well.
  • Long chapters. Long chapters (over 4,000 words or so. Sometimes much longer) tend to have the opposite effect of short ones. The reader gets a grand, sweeping sensation that often suits grandiose scenes or narratives. When mixed with shorter chapters, long chapters can also give a feel of a “continuous take” camera shot in a movie, where there’s not meant to be any sort of break in the action/visual for thematic reasons. Less shocking than a quick chapter in the middle of longer chapters, it is easier to slip in without drawing large amounts of reader attention, but changing to a long chapter tends to work best when there is tension building or some other sort of scene that should really draw the reader in.

As with all choices when it comes to writing, it really is a matter of what you are attempting to accomplish in your manuscript. It is also possible to try a few ways out and then change them if they don’t seem to be working after the fact. Just always consider what you mean to do when making these sorts of choices for your manuscript to have the best effect.

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