This week’s Refresher Friday is a revised look at dealing with a too-short chapter.
We all know how critical it is to have the right chapter ending. We want something unexpected, something that grabs reader attention and makes them desperate to turn the page. We usually recognize it when we reach it in our writing.
But what happens when we hit that perfect ending, and it's only halfway through what the target chapter size is?
For some folks this is a no brainer, because they'll just end the chapter there and worry about how it fits later (if at all). But others prefer a general consistency of chapter length, and this even helps them while pacing the novel. Too many short chapters means the major turning points won’t hit at the right spots and might even indicate a flaw in the plot.
To help figure out if a chapter is really too short or just the right length, here are a few options:
1. Examine how you can flesh out the chapter so it ends closer to the target word count.
If you know you tend to be light on one area (such as description, or dialog) this might be the nudge you need to add that element in. Or you might decide to extend the scene and add more conflict, or make the problem harder overall. You could even have a character be reflective or consider what’s happening more through internalization or a conversation with another character.
Pros: The chapter is the size you intended. You get to develop areas you might not have done if you hadn't been pressed to take another look.
Cons: You might be adding stuff just to add.
If you’re only adding trivial details—empty dialog, cute little jokes, random thoughts that do nothing to advance the scene or character—that’s a red flag all you’re doing is dragging the scene out. It might be just fine at the current length.
2. Use it as a scene ending instead and keep going.
Scene breaks are a wonderful thing, so a great hook line could be a great spot to switch scenes. If the scene changes location or time right after that perfect ending line, a scene break is a natural element to add. Not only do you end on a compelling note, but the break helps keep the pace moving and encourages readers to turn the page.
Pros: You don't have to do anything.
Cons: A scene break might feel awkward or throw off something else about the story, such as the pace or flow.
If breaking the scene hurts the story, just write the chapter and let the word count fall where it may. Just because it feels off now doesn’t mean the solution won’t present it self when the draft is done. You can always restructure the chapters so they flow better later. You can also add more (or cut some) to a previous chapter and shift scene around.
3. Don't end, just keep writing.
A well-crafted hook line can feel like the perfect chapter ending, but that doesn’t mean the chapter ought to end there. Maybe the goal hasn’t been resolved yet, or the reveal hasn’t occurred, and ending here would make the chapter feel pointless. Moving on is good for the chapter and the novel.
Pros: You don't have to do anything and you’ll have solid hooks in the middle of the chapter to keep the narrative drive moving.
Cons: The chapter feels off because it reads as if it should have ended there but doesn't.
This might not bother readers since they didn't know you meant to end it there and couldn’t. But something might still feel off because everything builds toward that moment, and then—whoops, it peaks, then tension drops, yet it keeps going. What happens next could feel tacked on at best, anticlimactic at worst.
4. Let the chapter end where it ends.
There’s no rule that says chapters need to be a certain length, or that every chapter in a novel needs to be similar in size. If that’s the perfect ending for a chapter, so be it and start the next chapter.
Pros: You don't have to do anything.
Cons: You have a short chapter that sticks out.
If a novel has a variety of chapter lengths, a short chapter probably won’t stand out or be noticed. But if the average chapter size is twenty-three pages, and you have one lone chapter with only three pages, it could get noticed and jar readers out of the story. It might be better to have a slightly longer chapter than to draw attention to a too-short one.
Not every writer (or reader) will be sensitive to where a chapter ends. Some writers don't even break the novel into chapters until it's done. If you don't care how many words each chapter has, don't sweat it. But if you do care, and it bugs you when the chapters don't fall out as planned, these tips might help you hit your goals.
Do you care what size your chapters are? Do you worry if one is too long or too short?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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