Monday, February 8, 2010

Chapter Length

One of the many things I struggle with in my writing is how long to make each individual chapter. Sometimes this is easy, seeing as there are scenes where you can insert a break into the action. These are the cliffhanger endings that writers love because, if it's done right, you know the reader is going to immediately move on to the next chapter.

Sometimes -- in fact much of the time -- I've found it's difficult for me to find a good place to end the chapter. Let me give you an example from CALLARION AT NIGHT:

I've added a new chapter two to the story (one that follows on Chapter One more immediately), and the first part of the chapter ends with an explosion in the poor part of the city. The explosion happens on page 5. A previous version has the chapter continuing to page 15, following Moriah down into the city where she helps heal the people injured in the explosion and has a fight with the yellow-jackets.

A more recent edition has the first five pages split into Chapter Two and the next ten to fifteen as Chapter Three. There are a bunch of points like this, where I've struggled with how long is a reasonable length for a chapter. Chapter One, by the way, is eleven and a half pages long.

Having said all this, I wonder if there's such a thing as an "ideal chapter length." What do you think, oh loyal blog readers? Is there a point in a chapter where you stop reading? Or does it matter so long as the material is interesting?

Your thoughts are, as always, much appreciated.


Frankie Diane Mallis said...

I struggle with chapters lengths too but usually bc mine are too long. I'd like all of my chapters to be 15 page-ish but most are at least twenty and I think I have one monster who goes to about 30 pages. However I always have a strong sense of where to end a chapter. I know I should be breaking mine up more, but I have a strong sense of exactly where to end. I know for me, I need to write fairly uniformly, but a lot of writers will do 2 page chapters followed by a 10 pager and their lengths jump all over the place just because the length is right for the story. SO I don't know--I think if you feel in your gut--this is the end of the chapter--then go with it no matter what the length.

Gary Corby said...

I sort of stick chapter boundaries in at random. It's important you get the structure right before and after. Beyond that, anything goes, IMHO.

I always liked reading Roger Zelazny's Roadmarks because it opens with a chapter titled, "Two".

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

My chapters start out 10-20 pages, but seem to get shorter with each revision. The start and end are driven by the scene but the length is more a craft issue, I think. I worry more about overall word count, since the guidelines for MG are pretty tight.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I think that you're overthinking this. I usually end a chapter when there's a POV or setting change.
But think of each chapter as a mini-story, with a beginning, rising action, climax, and resolution.
Each chapter fills out a piece of the puzzle. Figure out what the most efficient way to make that point then move on.

Matthew Delman said...

Iapetus --

Yes, this is one of the dreaded cases of "overthinking" things. The most annoying part is, while I can recognize the overthinking bit, I still find myself debating length when I write a chapter that's 20 pages long.

Gary --

At random is probably one of the better ways forward at this point.

Susan and Frankie --

It's good to know other people wonder about this too.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I struggle with chapter length myself. I usually try to end them where it feels like a natural transition point, but...who knows? :-)

Amalia Dillin said...

I struggle with this too-- Lately I've settled for the most part on keeping my chapters over 2000 words. As long as they make it that far(about 7 pages) I feel okay about it breaking-- shorter than that seems to frustrate my readers. As far as maximum length goes, I don't worry about that so much. I have a couple chapters where I'm hitting around 15 pages or so, but it's what the scene calls for, so that's what I've done. Nobody has complained about chapter length since I put this system into place, so I'm feeling pretty confident.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I don't really pay attention to how long my chapters are. Initially most started around 30 pages, but I've since double my number of chapters. I just end where it feels most appropriate, making sure to keep the tension high.

L. T. Host said...

I kinda agree with オテモヤン . Throw some S E X in the middle there and hey-o, they'll keep reading!

Okay, but in all seriousness, I have a very scientific formula for my chapter length. Ready?

Make it ~10 pages.

I know, groundbreaking, right? But it does have an advantage-- I tend to naturally break my chapters around 10 pages regardless (I don't really generally say, okay, so ten more pages, chapter break now!) but when I follow this rhythm they break on their own. However, as a rule for action, if I were to follow it specifically, I would probably always break in the middle of action, by sheer chance.

Having said that (if it made any sense), I feel I should add-- formatting isn't that huge of a deal at this stage. Everything I've heard suggests that while yes, it's awesome if you get it right the first time, if something is off and an agent/ editor loves your book anyway they'll help you fix it.

Joshua McCune said...

This has been on my mind recently, too. My current WIP's got chapters that are roughly 15 pages, which seems really long to me b/c I'm normally in the 5 - 8 page range. Ultimately, I think Gary's spot on... do whatever feels right.

Natalie said...

I like 10 page chapters. They are quick to read, but long enough to have some meat in them. My chapters are super short (2-5 pages usually). But I write MG, so it's a different beast.

Adam Heine said...

(This comment is totally random. The next one will be on-topic.)

I read L.T. Host's comment and laughed out loud. Isaac and Nathan, my 3-year-old sons, asked me what I was laughing at. I said, "Someone wrote something very funny on the internet."

Isaac said, "Isaac did it."

"Really? You wrote something funny on the internet?"


"You signed the comment as L.T. Host?" I pulled the laptop screen down so he could see the name.

He looks at it for a moment and says with a decisive nod, "Yeah. I did it."

Adam Heine said...

Re: chapter lengths.

I don't think it matters much. In general, shorter chapters may help keep readers involved (because they know it's easier to stop at any time), but scene breaks can do the same thing. Heck, Terry Pratchett doesn't have chapters at ALL.

I've found 3-4k words works for me when I'm writing. But some chapters are as short as 1k and a few go over 5k. Mostly, though, I write the chapter until the chapter's over. Ending on a cliffhanger whenever possible, of course.

dolorah said...

For me, if a chapter is very long, and encompasses several concepts, at some point I have to get up and grab a glass of wine, go potty, something to break up the monotony. Even if the scenes are exciting, I just need a natural breather.

In my own writing, I try to stay between about 9 to 15 pages. Some are a little longer or shorter, depending on what I'm trying to get across in the overall chapter. I think you just have to do what feels natural to you, as a reader and a writer of your own story.


David said...

I believe chapters should be about 2947 words long, but just approximately - anything between 2945 and 2949 is probably fine.

Seriously, depends on the book - but I've never heard of an agent rejecting for this reason, so why worry?