Got Questions: Chapter Length

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?

That depends.

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 reader’s – or character’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 “Parts” – and within them there are line breaks that function in somewhat the same manner as chapter breaks.

What is a chapter, anyway?

It’s an artificial divisor within the story, used to create rhythm.

How did they develop? I don’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 you’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.

19 Responses to “Got Questions: Chapter Length”

  1. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 10 Feb 2007 at 12:33 pm

    Well, besides chapters, there are sections, which are larger (something I first noticed reading Thomas Mann and then grabbed for myself) and books, which are the large divisions in a novel. For example, I remember Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds as being divided into two books (or maybe it was one of the sequels) and Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell is divided into three. Then there are novels like The Lord of the Rings which are really one book but published as three separate books I believe originally for marketing and later for tradition but are meant to be read altogether.

    I believe J. K. Rowling also did the two sub-books for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

    The way I look at it, the books are like act breaks in a play, while the sections are scenes. Of course, the play model doesn’t work as well as it might, since there’s a limited time you can keep butts in the theatre, which a novel really doesn’t have, so a hefty novel is more akin to a season of a television show, with the individual episodes as chapters, the sections being story arcs, and the whole season being the book. Unfortunately, even television sometimes lets you down. I happily watched the first two seasons of Carnivale and was really pissed that they canceled it before we could see the third book of the novel playing out on my screen.

    Of course, novels are even freer than television in that there isn’t the artifical constraint of fitting into hour-long blocks with breaks for commercials or even, as with HBO and Showtime, competing with same. About the only time I’ve ever seen a television show get to break the formula was when Joss Whedon got to do an hour and ten minutes for the first airing of Buffy’s Once More With Feeling, which was still bobbed down unhappily for the reairing.

  2. Madeleine Robinson 10 Feb 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Abe Lincoln was supposedly asked how long a man’s legs should be: “Long enough to reach the ground.” (Probably apocryphal, but it does the trick.)

    I find that I tend to have a built-in chapter length in my writing process: between 15-20 pages. But that’s just the way the rhythm works for me (and like all rules, this one gets broken as needs require).

    It’s really easy to fall into the trap of believing that there are rules to “real writing” that are as mechanical as “the right length for chapters” or “start in mid-action” or whatever. In fact, such rules are not immutable, and the whole process really is more by-guess-and-instinct that it is wholly comfortable to believe. Rhythm and pacing are such seat-of-the-pants concerns, sensed as much as constructed. That’s not comforting when you’re starting out or not fully confident in your craft. But I very much doubt anyone will reject a book on the basis that the chapters aren’t long enough or are too long–unless the rhythm is seriously off.

  3. Darcyon 10 Feb 2007 at 3:31 pm

    Didn’t chapters come about as a result of novels being published as serials? Or is my memory going blooey on me again?

  4. Sherwood Smithon 10 Feb 2007 at 4:42 pm

    Bruce Coville once said that short chapters convey the illusion of faster pace. In children’s lit, this can be a good thing, especially for very small people who are learning to read, and a chapter a night seems a lot.

    I’ve noticed this works for older readers. Not that all works need a sense of faster pace–just an observation. (And others might disagree.)

    I do think that chapters function as dramatic beats, same as little doo-hickeys dividing off text within chapters (or parts, in the case of Deverry): Shakespeare made great use of white spaces, conveying a sense of dramatic pause.

  5. [...] 4 – Chapter Length Kate Elliot discusses scenes, pacing and rhythm at DeepGenre. (tags: progress action scenes rhythm pace length chapter novels stories fiction writing) [...]

  6. David Louis Edelmanon 10 Feb 2007 at 10:34 pm

    I find that if you know the shape of the entire story arc — which you might not know until at least the second draft — it’s fairly easy to divide things up into chapters, books, sections, etc.

    Also… once you’re satisfied with the length of one particular chapter, it becomes easier to calculate the length of the rest. For instance, you might see that it took you, say, 15 pages for the hero to escape from the dungeon, so it should take at least 20 for him to slay the dragon. And the comical scene between the hero and his squire really shouldn’t be more than 10. And so forth.

    Another thing to keep in mind… Chapter breaks are where people usually put the book down for the night. Good to remember that.

  7. Kate Elliotton 10 Feb 2007 at 11:13 pm

    what you absolutely never want is for the reader to put down the book at the break and say, “well, enough of that!” and never come back to it.

  8. Debbie Whiteon 11 Feb 2007 at 10:46 am

    On the other hand, I absolutely hate it when an author ends a chapter in the middle of a scene and in the middle of the action. It’s just a ploy to force me to keep reading, and I resent that. That doesn’t stop me from putting the bookmark in at the end of the scene, and I have never bought a second book from a writer who does this.

    In a fanasy novel I once read, the hero makes a comment like ‘every time I find one answer, three more questions are raised!’ You don’t need three more questions, just one.

    If you have a question raised at the end of the chapter that the reader wants answered and something intriguing happening at the beginning of the next chapter to entice them onward, then there’s no fear of losing your audience and no need to ‘hijack’ them to force them to continue reading…in my rather heated opinion. :)

  9. Carol Bergon 11 Feb 2007 at 9:41 pm

    The majority of my chapters end up 12-15 pages. I don’t plan it that way, but as Kate and Madeleine and others said, it is a matter of rhythm and feel. And that happens to be my personal rhythm. 8 feels like not enough has happened to change things. 20 feels like I’ve wandered and lacked focus. But, then again, sometimes those lengths are exactly what’s needed.

    Each of my chapters is a small story arc made up of one or more scenes. A story arc moves characters and plot from one state to another. Thus, within this arc “something happens” – which sounds fairly obvious, unless you’ve read a lot of beginners’ writing, where whole chapters are devoted to description or world-building or internal monologue that changes nothing. The “something that happens”–the summation of the scenes in the chapter–whether it is a discovery/realization or an encounter or a battle or whatever, must still fit within a larger story arc, serving to ratchet up the tension on the way to a turning point or climax and its denoument. I will often have three or four of these larger, multi-chapter story arcs in a book (sometimes labeled as “parts”, sometimes not.) And, of course, the entire story is a story arc in itself.

    As Debbie said, no devices such as artificial cliffhangers or intrusive “predictions” (eg. “that was the worst mistake he ever made.”) are needed to keep the reader engaged if the arc of the chapter has raised the level of tension in the reader. (Which is not to say you can’t leave the characters in a predicament!)

    Carol

  10. Stacyon 12 Feb 2007 at 10:00 am

    I’m at work on draft two of novel one, and have only used acts and scenes for structure – without any real intentions of having chapters at all. What I basically have is plenty of small soft breaks with no large hard breaks. Is it a really bad idea to have no “parts” other than scene breaks, with no books or acts or chapters?

  11. Mark Tiedemannon 12 Feb 2007 at 10:17 am

    Knowing what it is you want the chapter to do–informationally and dramatically–is the only metric for chapter length. I’ve read many books with one page chapters, squeezed in between four to eight page chapters, etc, and other books with thirty, forty, or even hundred page chapters…and then a handful of books with no chapters at all, at least not clearly defined as such.

    This is a matter of growing into your capacities and away from preconceptions. It reminds me of my adolescent days when in music I took the position that any song less than four minutes long was de facto not worth the bother. That, in fact, songs over ten minutes fell into the “serious” category automatically. Nonsense, of course, but it’s a way of finding a quick and easy solution to a problem that entirely aesthetic and as such requires experience, sensitivity, and confidence.

  12. Alison Croggonon 13 Feb 2007 at 1:38 pm

    When I’m writing novels, I find myself obsessed with the structure. My series has four books. Each book is divided into four parts of around five or six chapters each. My chapters average around 20 pages, the shortest probably 10 pages, the longest maybe 30. Each chapter is divided into passages or “scenes”, which I kind of think of as breaths. As a few others have said here, the metastructure of the narrative is imagined like a classic three act play (the middle two constitute the second act) – you know that Dostoevsky planned all his novels in scenes and acts? – In fact, I use a fair bit of dramatic technique in these novels: I try to pace every scene as if it’s a play, dialogue is important for the narrative flow and at the micro level it moves in “beats”. But plays are a lot shorter, of course. I’m heading for the climax and denoument of the entire series now, it’s a little scary…

    These books seem to demand long chapters; as someone said above, it’s about “feel”, the pace of that particular story. But I have sworn that my next book will have no chapter longer than five pages each. I’m tired of writing long chapters. I envy writers who have books with little chapters in them. Jane Austen has no chapter longer than about five pages, and the story whizzes along.

  13. Kate Elliotton 13 Feb 2007 at 10:33 pm

    But Mark, what about the Beatles?!? Heh. No, but seriously, you’re absolutely right (in my opinion, anyway) about it being “a matter of growing into your capacities and away from preconceptions.”

    Alison, I’m glad to hear from another writer who uses theatrical forms as some element of the metastructure.

    Are there extant notes from Dostoevsky showing his breakdowns? Meanwhile, I’m going to have to go check out Austen’s chapter lengths. I never noticed.

  14. Mark Tiedemannon 14 Feb 2007 at 8:33 am

    Ah, yes, Kate, the Beatles. Well, that just goes to show how ridiculous such arbitrary measures can be. (Though in some small embarrassment I admit to not liking them until after they broke up. Better late than never, though, eh?)

  15. Alison Croggonon 15 Feb 2007 at 9:15 pm

    He Kate – re Dostoevsky’s use of acts and scenes: I read it in some introductory essay on Dosteovsky, and to be honest I can’t remember where – probably the Penguin Crime and Punishment. But I haven’t seen the actual breakdowns, though I expect he would have used the five act structure. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were available somewhere, though.

    Just to be particularly abstruse: odd-numbered act structures are central to most classic plays. I don’t know why, but even numbers – plays with four acts, say – just don’t seem to work. Prose, on the other hand, seems to demand even numbers, a certain symmetry. Any crackpot theories? I might go and try to work one out now…

  16. Charleson 28 Mar 2007 at 6:15 pm

    Chapter length isn’t something I struggle with. I’d have to go back and look and my writings that have progressed to multiple drafts of the actual novel — after the initial detailed outline first step — but my guess is my chapters fall somewhere in the 10 to 20 page range.

    What I tend to do beyond chapter breaks — which are more often than not due to switching to one of the other viewpoint characters — is divide the book into sections or parts.

    And I’ve come to notice over time that these Parts tend to fall along the lines of the different seasons within a year. Winter itself plays an important role in what the characters can or cannot do in the story, as deep snows or freezes limit the characters ability to travel. Also, the seasons influence the story arcs within the story as each season will naturally have certain events taking place as a part of how the society functions.

    To ask a question about Part Length then: If you divide your novel into Parts — if Part 1 is 100 pages, do you feel the need to make each remaining parts of the book about the same length? Or can Part Length within a book or over the course of a series vary widely?

  17. Kate Elliotton 28 Mar 2007 at 6:20 pm

    I myself do not feel it necessary to make Parts run at relatively equal lengths.

    For me, Parts function to separate sections due to time shifts, place shifts, major point of view shifts, or less tangibly-explained shifts based on a change of direction or a major event that, having transpired, throws everything into a new light.

    So I might write a Part that runs 40 pages followed by one that runs 200 pages.

  18. Katharine Kerron 29 Mar 2007 at 7:05 pm

    Classic works of theatre tend to fall into 3 acts because of theories of what constituted a “well-made play”. The theories date from the late 1700s, I think but could be wrong on the date. What follows is a very brief, bald summary: Act One presents the hero with a problem and shows him scoring a small sucess; Act Two showls his enemies gathering and revising his earlier sucess; and Act Three, he either ultimately triumphs or triumphs at great cost to himself — in tragedies he dies, basically.

    Some genre people, like Algis Budrys, have published treatises where they take this aged idea and expand it to fit novels, or try to make it fit anyway, by adding more reversals and triumphs. I dislike such theories personally, for what that’s worth.

  19. How long is a Chapter anyway |on 07 Feb 2010 at 12:05 pm

    [...] Got Questions: Chapter Length (DeepGenre). [...]

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