Thursday, April 02, 2020

What’s a Chapter? And How Long Should it Be?

By Dario Ciriello, @Dario_Ciriello 
Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Chapters are the typical way writers break up a novel, but what's the right way to handle them? Dario Ciriello shares thoughts and tips on handling your novel's chapters. 

I was recently asked by a writer how long a chapter should be, and how do you know where to end it. My first reaction was to smile and quote the old English saying, how long is a piece of string? In fiction, there really no rule, which set me thinking on what exactly a chapter is. Is it an organizing principle, or simply a device of convenience?

Chapters in fiction became common in the mid-eighteenth century. Novelist Henry Fielding, in 1742, gave a lovely description of the divisions between chapters as “an Inn or Resting-Place, where he may stop and take a Glass, or any other Refreshment, as it pleases him.” At the time, the average chapter was quite brief, perhaps 1,800 words, and typically encumbered with a mini-index listing its contents, such as, say,
CHAPTER TWELVE: Mr. Stevens woos the chambermaid, with interesting results
Or more – much more. Some nineteenth-century chapters in particular could contain several sentences in a list divided by semicolons.

It’s tempting therefore to think of the chapter as an organizing principle, but I think that’s not quite right: to me, the scene is the organizing principle, where the narrative is divided by subject matter, time, or place, or a combination of these. If we choose to follow this mode for our chapters, they’re likely to vary enormously over the course of a long work, since some units of action or narrative – a fight, say – may take up just a few paragraphs, while others (a difficult search, or a long conversation) might go one for twenty pages.

(Here's more on The Freedom of Writing Without Chapters)

Mapping it in hierarchical terms, here’s how a novel, with the possible exception of experimental postmodern or deconstructionist works, is actually structured:
With a chapter being composed of scenes, the scene break is where a narrative shift in time, place, or POV occurs. The discrete narrative unit is therefore contained within the scene, and the chapter can be used (by making chapters very roughly equal in size) to give some sense of regularity in a long work and break it into bite-sized pieces that can be read in a lunch break or at bedtime. This makes it convenient to read maybe a chapter or two of a book and put it down at the end of a chapter with a sense of reaching that “Inn or Resting-Place” where you may stop and take refreshment, or a good night’s sleep. This is how I like to divide chapters, and of course they also give you the opportunity for a cliffhanger ending to leave the reader eager to resume their reading.

The Victorian chapter grew in length to about 3,500 words, or around eight paperback pages. That’s not changed much: a great many of the genre novels I read average 400 pages (including some blank or intro pages) and contain around 25-30 chapters, which, at an average 330 words per page, comes out around 4,500 words per chapter, or almost fourteen pages. Sounds about right. (My own chapters are – on average – rather shorter, often half of that, and I’d be interested to hear in the comments how other authors feel about this.)

(Here's more on Tips on Writing Scene and Chapter Transitions)

Chapters, then, allow for resting places in a long narrative. The only other question remains how to know where to end one and begin the next.

Again, I have to say there’s no hard rule. I think most of us just develop a feeling for it and intuitively know where to close a chapter rather than reasoning it out. You can break a chapter when there’s a natural shift and it coincides with a scene ending, or you can break a chapter right in the middle of action. But either way, it should feel right, giving the reader the sense something is resolved and/or drawing them deeper into your story and leaving them with a desire to read on.

How do you handle and think of your chapters? 

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

Dario’s fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Panverse Publishing

About The Fiction Writing Handbook

A Unique Approach to the Craft of Writing Fiction

The Fiction Writing Handbook*
 is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.

Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers' block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.

Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

*Originally published in 2017 under the title, "Drown the Cat"

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  1. A good analysis -- and it's nice to know that 3500 has stayed as an average with some room for larger and smaller chapters. (Long chapters do feel right for many long worldbuilding or moodbuilding tales.)

    One figure I've always liked is the researcher who found readers tend to read 7500-10,000 words in a sitting. Chapters of 3500 divide pretty well into those, but a 5000-word chapter becomes a challenge that leaves a reader happy but *just maybe* up for diving into a second one. I've written chapters of that size and tried to make them immersive, and I've tried shorter ones.

    Other thoughts:

    * Viewpoint switches are better candidates for chapter breaks than ordinary scene breaks are. Especially if you add the narrator at the top of each chapter for clarity, of course.

    * A chapter could be *shorter* than a scene, or at least broken up at different points, if the writer wants the break as a point of emphasis. A one-instant cliff-hanger (or longer if the next chapter switches to a different character and scene before resolving the first one).

    * There seems to be more experimenting with shorter chapters these days too. The James Patterson franchise is famous for tiny chapters in the name of suspense, and other genres could do it too. (I keep meaning to try a story with small chapters and one key scene that runs 10,000 words or more, so the reader starts to realize they Just Can't Tell from the chapter length how many layers deep that one scene is going to go.)

    Some chapter issues like viewpoint swapping can be pretty well welded to how the story itself works best; others times we have all the freedom we want to find what works.

    1. Ken, thank you for those very interesting observations. I agree about the 10k-word sitting, that's fairly typical of me; I'm not a fast reader and that's about an hour's reading for me, unless the novel is very airy.

      Your other points are well-taken too. I think shorter chapters do tend to give a sense of impetus and pace in a page-turner; I certainly follow that pattern in my own two novels. And I REALLY like the idea of the book with one big, fat, key scene. LOL.

      A final point, given that I'm known as a scofflaw as far as writing rules go, might be the conclusion that there are no rules -- there's only what works. As I've often observed, a good enough writer can do anything they like. :)


  2. My preference to write and read are shorter chapters: 1000-1500 words. I believe readers dive into books in snippets, when they can fit it into their busy lives.

    1. Hello DiAnn, and thanks for your thoughts :)

      That's a good point and likely true for many readers, especially those who read on public transport, in lunch breaks, etc. The bottom line is that if it works, there's no hard and fast rule. I only notice chapter length when they go over maybe 20 or so pages (~7k words), at which point they start feeling long. But it's just something I observe without judgment because it's unusual.

      Interesting stuff.

      Of course, if the story and writing is compelling enough, they may not be able to put it down where they want :P


  3. My comfort zone has come to be, over time, about 1200-1800 words. On average, early chapters tend to be shorter than midpoint chapters. I like to keep the reader light of foot early on. I've also noted that one book might tend towards the lower end of that scale and another towards the higher.

    1. (Christina, my reply to your comment is below, somehow it didn't post as an answer and likely didn't trigger a notification. Damned Blogger comment mechanics! :P )

  4. Thanks for weighing in, Christina. The fleet-footedness, as it were, is a great reason for doing that.

    I'm personally much less mindful perhaps in that I don't in my own writing keep an eye on the chapter length but rely on my intuition or writer's senses to know when to break (yes, I;m a pantser as well). It gives me some regularity nonetheless, but only within each book, not globally. Looking just now at my two novels, both fast-paced thrillers (sorta), one is 80 words and has fifteen chapters; the other, at 90k words, forty-two. That's more than a 2:1 chapter length ratio from one book to the next.

    Scenes really are my baseline for narrative units, and that may be where I attain more regularity.

    Best, and thanks for chiming in!

  5. I'm a rather inexperienced writer since I have difficulty putting my stories into words, when I do manage to I don't know how long I should make a chapter. This gives me a better range and challenges me to write more. So thanks for that.
    I guess I just have trouble knowing whether or not I should just end a chapter before setting the story somewhere else. But I guess that if I did that I'd have a lot of little chapters in between long ones. I've gotta figure out how to better intergrade that sort of thing into my story.