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Author Topic: Chapter Lengths
Member # 7912

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So I'm curious. I'm working on my novel and I've been doing so on a very chapter by chapter basis, creating each one much as I would a short story, with a mixture of planning and improvisation. As I go along the story is becoming ever more complex with more and more branches and different things to handle. So, as part of determining how I want to plan out and arrange things, I am curious about what, if any, expectations there are about chapter lengths. I know some of my chapters are pretty hefty...4k words and more. Some are a good bit less, 2.5-3k. In many chapters I combine two scenes, or sets of scenes, involving different characters or groups of characters.
I'm a little more expectation-conscious when it comes to novels, versus short stories, so I'd be interested to hear any thoughts anyone has, personal opinions and experiences, comments from agents or editors, and whatever else to help me decide how I am going to shape, divide, and organize stuffs.

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Member # 9218

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A chapter is as long as it needs to be. Some of mine are 1k or less, but some over ten. So long as it tells the story it's supposed to.

Some writers don't even use them at all.

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Member # 7760

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A chapter break is the point where you let the reader close the book and do something else.

Readers need breaks, but the point is to make the chapter break come at a time that brings the reader back to the story, or convinces the reader to not stop, even though the have the opportunity.

I think it depends on the story, but in general, in order to hook the reader in the first chapter, the reader needs information. It takes more words to invest the reader into the story. They have to know the character, the situation, the stakes...etc. I think the first few chapters are generally longer than the rest. Later on, when the reader has all the information, you could hook the reader on with a word long chapter, or a sentence long chapter, and it wouldn't matter.

Follow your instincts, and the rules the story tells you to follow.

Good luck,

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Member # 8501

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I write my novels as collections of scenes, not chapters. So I look at chapters as a reasonable collection of scenes.

I like Sheena's definition as a break where a reader can put the book down... a convenient break. As a reader (not a writer), I find myself trying to get to a new chapter before I stop. That confirms her definition.

There is a lot of writing advice that promotes a hook at the end of the chapter to keep the reader's excitement up when they do break off their reading.

As for length, I'm not bothered by shorter and longer chapters in the same novel. My chapters vary quite a bit.

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Member # 8631

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Like Owasm, I write the novel as a collection of scenes. Right now I put a chapter break whenever it feels right. Not that helpful. But I think the chapter breaks are usually after something really significant has happened. A big reveal, or a big decsion, or after a fight.

As far as page numbers, it really varies. Some writers write 20 page chapters others write 5 page chapters on average because the chapter lengths tend to vary a bit even in the same novel.

This has to do with pacing. Short chapters tend to feel quicker in pace than long chapters. Because of this, I've noticed that near the climax, chapters tend to get a little shorted on average (especially in an action or adventure-type story).

So it really is up to the writer on how he/she wants the story to feel.

Hope that helps. [Smile]

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Robert Nowall
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I've seen published novels broken up into sections, and the sections broken up further into---well, I'll say "further sections," I can't say "chapters" 'cause they're not defined that way---and these further sections are often quite short, no more than a page or two. Sometimes they're a single scene, sometimes more.

Go with what feels right, even if it is short...you can always combine the things later on in editing...

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Member # 9765

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When I think of chapters, I always imagine my mother complaining about chapters being too long, because she'd like to put the book down at the end of a chapter, do some chores or give music lessons or sleep or whatever, and to continue reading from the new chapter. And there are many readers who are like her.

But if you need some chapters long(ish) and some short in order to tell your story the way it should be told, I say go for it.

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Member # 8368

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I tend to treat chapter breaks much the same as I treat paragraph breaks. I just know when I'm finished with that subject. [Smile]

Sometimes, there's another reason for starting a new chapter. For example, SEVEN STARS sticks to a single POV character per chapter. So, when I change POV, I have to start a new chapter.

As long as you've got some scene breaks providing an intermediate stopping place, I don't see a problem with longer chapters.

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Member # 8714

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I don't care so much about chapter length as how far to the next break. Just that little space between scenes. With regard to that, I like things on the short side. At 2am when you know you should be going to bed but you want to see what happens next, it is much easier to say, 'it's only a few more pages'. Next thing you know, it's 4am and there've been a lot of 'few more pages'. At that point if I see a big chunk of stuff coming up, I'll usually give up and go to bed.

shimiqua is right; it's about making the reader want to continue reading.

On the other hand, on audio book I've had some bits where I sat in a parking lot happily listening instead of going in to get my coffee because I was so enthralled. One in particular was a chase/fight scene that lasted more than forty minutes. On the page that would have been one of those big chunks. But it wasn't 2am either, so the decision might have been easier. And it was an awesome scene.

Break where it feels natural. But I'd err on the side of short.

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Member # 7912

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Hmmm interesting. What I am really wondering about is, I do have chapters that contain not just multiple scenes, but scenes that go into completely different points of view.
I am developing the story in terms of both scenes and chapters. Some of the chapters are scene-packages that contain parts that I conceived of together and that, in some cases, somewhat lead into each other. But not always.
For example, when starting chapter 6, I knew that one scene was going to be a confrontation between two characters. I also knew that I'd been largely away from my central characters for a bit and needed to get back to them. So, even though I wrote the fight-scene first, my original plan had been for it, and a section where I get my main characters off on their journey, to comprise Chapter 6, with the fight scene arranged second.
However the fight scene came in at just over 2k and the other scene is going to be at least that or more, so I am considering making the confrontation scene into Chapter 7.

That's why, story flow aside, I just wondered if there were any expectations or guidelines on chapter length, to help me determine whether or not I want to bundle certain scenes with different characters into the same chapter.

But it seems, so far, that there is little concern about that and the main issue seems to be having enough places where a reader can essentially feel comfortable putting the book down and moving on to something else.

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Member # 9331

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Well, from what I can see I'd guess most chapters fall between 3000 - 8000 in something like a log normal distribution with a long right tail. So the mode is probably somewhere around 4500-5000. From time to time you might see a 10K word or a 1500 word chapter, an individual example wouldn't raise eyebrows.

It appears to me from what I read that authors are all over the place on chapter length, and not particularly consistent. Of course if you're writing for an market like Harlequin Romances, that's a different story. They'll have very narrow parameters they'll want you to hit so you'll have to research those.

I think a better question than expected length of a chapter is *where to put a chapter break*. Scenes are the organic unit of storytelling. A scene ends when the action in it is done. Chapters are a matter of style. A chapter ends when you choose to end it.

It makes sense for chapters to end after a significant plot development. That's because there's bound to be a change of pace or tone as you set up for the next bit of action; readers expect that. So the start of a new chapter's a good place to handle stuff that isn't strictly narrative. Notice how narrators often wax reflective at the start of chapters, or dredge up stories of Ye Olden Dayes. Naturally you don't want to do a *lot* of that, but what little you do naturally fits at the start of a chapter. Stuff that's dreadful at the end of a chapter might be OK at the start of a new one, even though the order information is presented doesn't change at all.

One place this often strategy might be useful is in opening chapters. I see lots of opening chapters that need to end sooner, particularly the action packed ones. The way these typically go is that protagonist is minding his own business, and suddenly is in deadly peril. After lots of action, the protagonist is safe, and then the author serves up a thick slice of world-building or backstory that bogs the story down.

Often this problem could be solved simply by inserting a chapter break after the main action is done. Somehow putting the stamp *finished* on the action seals in the juices.

Chapters aren't necessary and some authors don't use them at all, but they work well with the need to vary pace and have places where it's OK to do narrative housekeeping.

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Member # 7912

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Yeah, figuring out where to put the breaks isn't an issue. The flow of the story mostly gets dictated by the story itself, and I just do whatever it tells me too since its typically holding me at eldritch tentacle-point.
My issue involves more of when to and when not to bundle together story-segments into the same chapter, and part of the uncertainty was based on my not knowing if there was reader or known editorial expectation about chapter lengths (I thought perhaps there may be conventions about them similar to those about the lengths of sentences or paragraphs.)

It appears that there isn't, so I can just base my decision entirely on how I decide I want to do it (which would have been the deciding factor anyway, but since I don't have the experience and knowledge in novel-writing that I do with short stories, I just like to check.)

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Member # 8019

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Four to five thousand words is about the average amount an average English reader reads in half an hour. As a basis for reader breaks, that's the equivalent of a meal break in an eight-hour workday. Logistically, half an hour of reading per session is mighty considerate of audience needs.

On the other hand, chapters are also dramatic units, if there are thirteen major and significant minor dramatic turns in a novel, thirteen chapters is a good measure of where the turns occur. Lesser dramatic turns for scene level dramatic units, lesser still for paragraph and sentence level dramatic units, down to a single cause or effect dramatic unit, which can be a sentence clause or a single word sentence fragment.

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Member # 9682

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i'm revising a novel now that i finished a first draft of in 2009, and i'm cutting down every chapter to 5000 to 6000 words. at 12 chapters, it'll be 60,000 to 70,000 words. that's a bit short for a novel, but i'm finding that chapters over 6000 words have excess wording that slows down pacing and generally doesn't do anything to advance the storyline.
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Member # 9758

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Chapters can be a break for the reader, they can be an end or a start to a minor conflict, they can be changes of point of view, changes in setting, changes in time.
My point is this, there are no set rules for chapter length.
I've seen chapters where nothing but the chapter number was written to use as a way of creating suspense.
Chapters should end with something to keep the reader hungering for more, but also giving them a stop in the action.
I think OSC had a writing lesson about this, might want to check that out as well.

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