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.
15 Replies to “How Long Should A Chapter Be?”
This most likely falls under the category of stupid question, but should all chapters in a novel be roughly the same length or is it okay to have one chapter be twice as long as the next? For some reason the thought of unevenness in chapter length grates on me, but trying to keep them all the same length makes for some awkward mid-scene cuts.
Good question, Bree. I want to hear Mary’s answer, too.
Thanks for this, Mary. I especially liked the post about transitions that you linked to. I liked it a few weeks ago when I first read it, and I still like it now:)
This is a great subject and one I’ve always wondered about. Some readers prefer shorter chapters, while others rather dig deeper into the story before being given a break. I also have that same question Bree mentioned in her comment. Should chapters be relatively the same length? I have seen both.
I don’t think that’s a stupid question at all, Bree. I would also like to hear a pro’s opinion. 🙂
My YA chapters usually tend to be 8-15 double-spaced, typewritten pages and it bugs me if I go much more or less than that. But I give myself a window because I’m always trying to build to a mini-cliffhanger at the end of a chapter. That is, unless it’s a heavy tension chapter. Then I might give a little relief at the chapter break.
And sometimes my chapters have just one scene and sometimes several short scenes. I always wonder if it’s off-putting when the structure of a chapter changes.
That is a good question, Bree.
I work on a formula system. I aim for 20 chapters at 2,000 words each. It helps me keep up with word count and organize my thoughts. Also, all my chapters wind up being about the same length (although I wouldn’t think that’s a must for any novel, it works well with my story arc).
That’s just what I do because my mind works better with some kind of formulated plan.
This is a great question and I’m glad you answered it the way you did–even though it is still not concrete. I think it is too easy for us to try to fit our writing around the advice we hear and end up locking ourselves into something that doesn’t fit our voice or manuscript style.
“But so and so said…”
Sometimes simply having permission to write what feels right is the best advice we can get. Then when we get feedback from critters, agents and editors we can tweak the lengths as necessary to make our writing as strong as possible.
As an aside, I would add that I never worry about chapter length during an initial draft. I simply stop when it feels like I should and transition from there. To do otherwise would stunt the creativity and magic. There’s plenty of time (and rewrites) to perfect the chapter breaks later.
Thanks for the great post.
This was a great post. It affirms what we hear over and over: “Write the story that needs to be told.” What works for one story won’t work for another. Thanks!
I think Mary already answered the chapter length question in her original answer. I think the info she gave applies or transfers to chapter length.
Great topic! I’ve always wondered about chapter length and such. With my writing style, I often have short chapters. When I read, I tend to get lost when the chapters are long so I was wondering what was the “norm.”
Thanks for this!! Have a great day.
I truly appreciated this post as in some of my research reading there are suggestions that chapters have to be certain lengths or only cover a specific number of scenes. You have pointed out that what it really boils down to is what moves the story forward and gets the reader to turn the page.
Bree and all — I don’t like mood swings in chapter length myself, but as has been echoed elsewhere in these comments, if it fits the story that you’re telling, you can have uneven chapter lengths. I’ve seen chapters as short as a sentence or a paragraph that serve to break up the action of longer chapters or provide focus. If you’re going to do something that’s different from the rhythm you’ve established, and this includes inserting different chapter lengths, make sure you’re doing it for good reason.
Many thanks Mary for tackling my question, and posters for corroborating some of my concerns and/or instincts. I certainly don’t even think about chapter length in the first (and sometimes even second) draft period; it is only when I am rereading and really trying to craft a book rather than just a story that I start to play around here. And yes, Bree, one of my major questions was about consistency. So thank you for asking it!
I was so glad to read this perspective on chapters and scenes. In a previous draft of my current project, my chapters were always anywhere from 8-20 pages, where in my current draft they’re running more like 4-5, with the occasional long one. It’s good to be reminded that both are ok. 🙂
My chapter lengths vary greatly but I think it works because each chapter is one character’s POV and if it is a pivotal chapter, it tends to be longer. If it’s not a pivotal chapter, they are all about the same.
Chapter 1 is 3/4 of a page (I shortened it from 13 pages) and while it is the shortest of the ms I think it works beautifully. I hope agents feel the same when I start querying. 🙂