Kate Elliott February 10th, 2007
Over in Questions?, Lizza writes:
The hardest part i’d have to say though, was getting my chapters to be more lengthy. They were short and to the point. I wanted to be able to keep the reader hanging with suspense until the final word of the chapter. This is still something that I seem to have trouble with.
How long must your chapter be? How long do publishers recommend them being?
How long must a chapter be?
Long enough to do what it needs to do.
What does it need to do?
Here are some examples:
A chapter can, as in an episode of an old movie serial, move along the action at break-neck pace until a cliff-hanger, at which point it cuts off so the reader feels impelled to turn the page to find out what happens next. Such chapters are usually fairly short. Dan Brown famously used this method throughout The DaVinci Code.
A chapter can build up tension or conflict and then end on a twist, that turns the readerâ€™s – or characterâ€™s – expectations around, makes them gasp. And, presumably, turn the page.
A chapter can confine an incident or interaction and bring it to a momentary resolution. It can signal a breathing point, an emotional slap, a grimace of satisfaction, the knife of revenge.
A chapter can bridge two otherwise separated parts of a story, a transition. It can contain a single event, or years.
Katharine Kerr does not use chapters in her Deverry books. She uses entire â€œPartsâ€ – and within them there are line breaks that function in somewhat the same manner as chapter breaks.
What is a chapter, anyway?
Itâ€™s an artificial divisor within the story, used to create rhythm.
How did they develop? I donâ€™t rightly know.
Besides what I have absorbed from reading, I have likely been most influenced in my use of scenes and chapters (scenes either as complete chapters or multiple scenes within chapters) by the amount of Shakespeare my parents took us sibs to see when we were young. Well done plays are a good way to study scenes and how they function within the rhythm of the narrative, because they do create rhythm. That is why there is no standard chapter length. The length and intensity of chapters must fit the pacing and rhythm of the book in question.
You can of course vary chapter lengths according to what manner of scene or how many scenes youâ€™ve incorporated into each chapter. That is, a short action packed chapter followed by a longer emotionally wrought conversational chapter, or a short descriptive internal dialogue chapter (which might get boring if it ran too long) following a lengthy battle scene.
You can try to maintain a set chapter length but vary the rhythm within each given chapter by varying the flow and pacing of the narrative – one chapter being a reflective intimate conversation and another a rip-roaring chase.
And so on.
I do tend to find that books without rhythmic variation – all too fast or all too slow or chapters with no variation in rhythm – cool my reading interest. I seek that change up.
So, what wisdom do the rest of you all have to impart about chapter length? I have barely scratched the surface.