Dana wrote to me a few weeks ago to ask “How long should a chapter be?”
I would love to hear your take on chapter breaks, long chapters, very short chapters, chapters that start seconds after the previous one ends, chapters that start months later, etc. In a related question, I would also love to have you weigh in on scenes, and how they differ from, but are related to, chapters.
Chapter and Scenes
When we’re considering “How long should a chapter be?” we need to look at chapters and scenes. They can sometimes be related, or they can be completely different. Sometimes, writers who use short chapters have their chapters represent, basically, a scene and some transitional material before and after to string the reader through the plot. Writers who write longer chapters can sometimes go for five or more scenes before giving the reader a chapter break. This, of course, also depends on the length of your scenes. If you have a few short school scenes where your character sees and interacts with people in the halls or in class, you can probably make those into once chapter. If you’re giving readers a climactic battle scene near the end of the book where everything comes together, I’d let that be the only big scene in that chapter.
So How Long Should A Chapter Be?
I can’t give you a definitive answer to this question. Not only is it your choice how you want to structure your story, it also depends on the length of your scenes, the genre you’re writing in, the target audience you’re writing for (younger and reluctant readers do better with shorter chapter length), and the overall pacing of your big story arc but also of the section of the novel that you’re working on at that moment (more on words per chapter here).
If the timing of your story and the passage of time between chapters makes sense, then it’s okay to skip over months between chapters. As long as you ground the reader once you begin the new chapter — so the reader knows exactly how much time has passed and when/where the reader is — you should be fine. (See my post on how to start a chapter for more on this idea.) But again, as long as it makes sense to the story and to your storytelling style. I, personally, would never leave my characters in limbo for months between chapters, but that’s because most of my stories are set in pretty small chunks of time — a few days to a few weeks — and so there’s not a lot of time to gloss over. Just like with “How long should a chapter be?”, it all comes down to the scope of your story and how you’re telling it.
You Can’t Go Wrong With Carefully Considered Choices
The best thing about this question, in my opinion, is that it shows that chapters and scenes need to be crafted and constructed carefully, just like everything else. Chapter structure, length, pacing, timing, content, and all that other stuff is part of the decisions you must make as a writer, and, ideally, you will have good reasons for each choice.