I was recently asked in an online group what length a chapter should be. I’ve discussed this before here, but I’m always happy to repeat myself. In my opinion, there is no hard and fast rule.
However, as time has passed, my writing style has evolved. Chapters have become shorter, averaging between 1,500 to 2,250. Some will be much shorter, for reasons I will go into further on down this article. Some might be longer if the story demands it.
However, it’s a good idea to consider comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. I’ve attended seminars given by authors who say they have a specific word-count limit for their chapter length, a personal choice.
I’ve read and enjoyed many books where the authors made each scene a chapter, even if it was only two or three hundred words long. They ended up with over 100 chapters in their books, but the chapter-length went unnoticed by me when I read it.
L.E. Modesitt Jr. sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each point-of-view character’s storyline separate and flows well.
For me as a reader, books work best when each chapter details the events of one large scene or several related events.
Chapters are like paragraphs. Packing too many unrelated ideas into one place makes them feel erratic and disconnected. In the end, you must decide what your style is going to be.
The key to a smooth, seamless narrative is how an author handles transitions.
This could be a conversation that moves the story forward to the next scene within a chapter.
Conversely, the transition conversation could end a chapter by offering a tidbit of information that compels the reader to turn the page—the hook.
Information is crucial but should be given only as the reader requires it.
A good conversation is about something one or more characters don’t know. It builds toward something they’re only beginning to understand. A conversation is an opportunity to close a scene or chapter with a hook.
That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter. Each should reveal something new and push the story forward toward the final showdown. If a scene is there to fluff the word count, I suggest removing it.
Fade-to-black: I don’t like fade-to-black transitions except as a finish to a chapter. Fading-to-black in the middle of a chapter makes the story feel mushy.
Hard scene breaks: When a length of time has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, it makes sense to use the old 1-2-3:
- Wind it up with a firm finish
- Leave the reader with a hook that makes them want to turn the page
- Start a new chapter.
Short stories are different. If you are writing a short story, dividing it into chapters isn’t an option. At the end of a scene, you may find that a hard break is required. Editors with open calls for short stories will often ask that you insert an asterisk or hashtag to indicate a hard scene break.
Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view. That is my choice also, as a hard transition between characters is the best way to avoid head-hopping.
Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck” and makes following the storyline difficult.
Sometimes an event occurs where more than one character has a point of view that needs to be shown. How you navigate this will significantly affect the readability of the narrative.
If you switch POV characters, I strongly suggest that you either change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs, or consider ending the chapter.
I’ve mentioned before that one of the complaints some readers have with Robert Jordan’s brilliant Wheel of Time Series is how he wandered around between storylines as if he couldn’t decide who the main character was.
Rand Al Thor begins as the protagonist, but Matrim, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are also given prime storylines.
I’m a dedicated Wheel of Time fan, but I was halfway through reading the series when I realized there was a good chance that we were never going to see Rand do what he was reborn to do. At that point, I kept reading because the world, the characters, and the events were so intriguing.
As very few of us are writers at Robert Jordan’s level, I suggest you concentrate on developing a single compelling, well-rounded main character, with the side characters well-developed but not upstaging the star.
Now we come to a commonly asked question: Should I use numbers or give each chapter a name? The authors I am acquainted with seem divided by this question.
What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If good titles pop up in your mind for each chapter, by all means, go for it. Otherwise, numbered chapters are perfectly fine and don’t throw the reader out of the book.
Limit point of view characters to one per scene.
Each chapter should detail scenes and events that are related, rather than a jumble of unrelated happenings.
In regard to chapter length, you as the author must decide what the right word count is.
End your chapters at a logical place, but do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.