Authors just starting out often wonder how long a chapter should be. A good rule of thumb is to consider the comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. With that said, you must decide what your style is going to be.
Over the years, 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 it worked for me when I was reading it.
I’ve attended seminars given by authors who say they have a specific word-count limit for their chapter length. One keeps them at 1,500. One of my favorite authors sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each character’s storyline separate and flows well. I personally have found that for my style of storytelling, 2,500 to 3,000 words is a good length.
In a book, each chapter should detail the events of one scene or several related scenes. Chapters are like paragraphs, in that cramming too many disparate ideas into one place makes them feel erratic and disconnected.
One of my forthcoming books has longer chapters, as it is really a collection of short stories that take place over forty years of one character’s life. It follows the chronological order of his life and the chapters are vignettes detailing large events that changed him profoundly. These long chapters do contain hard breaks.
Conversations make good transitions to propel the story forward to the next scene, and they also offer ways to end a chapter with a tidbit of information that will compel the reader to turn the page. Information is crucial but should be offered only as the reader requires it.
A good conversation is about something one or more characters don’t know. It builds toward something the characters are only beginning to understand. A conversation is an opportunity to close a scene or chapter with a hook.
Fade-to-black and hard scene breaks: I don’t like fade-to-black transitions except as a finish to a chapter. Fading-to-black at the end of a scene can make the story feel mushy if there is no finite transition.
When a length of time has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, it makes sense to wind it up with a firm finish and a hook and start a new chapter.
Having said that, 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.
With each scene, we push the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.
Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view. I agree, 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 more than one character has a point of view that needs to be shown but readers will thank you if you limit point of view changes.
One of the problems some readers have with Robert Jordan’s brilliant Wheel of Time Series is the way 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 story lines.
I’m a dedicated WoT fan, but even I found that exceedingly annoying long about book eight, Path of Daggers. I was halfway through reading that book 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 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.
It’s easier for the reader to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the story. If you do switch POV characters, I strongly suggest that you change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs or end the chapter.
Now we come to a commonly asked question: Should I use numbers, or give each chapter a name?
What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If snappy 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. One series of my books has numbered chapters, the other has titled chapters.
Whichever style of chapter heading you choose, numbered or titled, be consistent and stay with that choice for the entire book.
To wind this up: Limit your point of view characters to one per scene. Limit each chapter to show events that are related, rather than a jumble of unrelated events.
When it comes to chapter length, you must make the decision as to the right length and end chapters at a logical place. But do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.