Most people who are truly invested in writing are sticklers for format. Not a uniformed format, of course, that would be too easy. One of the hardest parts of trying to enter scripts into contests is looking for the desired layout of those specific judges; if it’s not the right one, a person may very well be considered an amateur or just an idiot.
It makes sense as to why many authors at one point or another contemplate chapter length. Considering how many abstract and, let’s just say, inane rules in writing, we often think that there should be some sort of regulation.
But of course there isn’t, and we all know that there isn’t, yet the question comes up often enough: How long should a chapter be?
My personal issues with chapters is that I often want to put one in—sometimes about every page, but I feel that they should be longer, so I force myself to keep going even when I really want to make a break. Then it becomes a question of what is long enough, which no one really knows, and it is stressful.
One of my books (Lilae and Company, unpublished), I allowed myself to put in a chapter at every instinct. Because it was my seventh large project and I had been exercising restraint, it became an interesting task. When I read the novel after finishing, it illustrated to me something about the way I viewed my scenes. Often times there was a chapter that was only a paragraph in which it told the results or consequences of an earlier event, but didn’t actually have a point in the end.
For example, my character disappeared from her shift and now she was getting lectured, but at the end of the scene I had not delivered any new information, up the stakes, or foreshadowed the resolution. That’s the reason the chapter was so short. I needed to illustrate the consequences, but it was the only intention of the scene, and thus I didn’t know where to go with it. I just jumped ahead to the next part.
I believe this was a helpful experience for me, and an author should take the time to follow with his instincts to understand why those are his instincts.
However, that’s not particularly the advice anyone wants if they’re actually bothering to reading this, so here are a few basic tips to think about when deciding exactly how long a chapter you want.
Number 1: The Superficial Aspect.
In the artistic world, we try not to admit our nonsensical biases, but I find that, in this case, it is the most important part of deciding how long a chapter should be.
A short chapter is indicative of a commercial book, meant for the enjoyment of the masses. A long chapter means the book is for the intellectual. This, of course, is not always true, but it still often affects the reader’s perception. Short chapters, ones less than 10 (250 word-sized) pages, are easier to read and often make the novel fast paced, but the reader doesn’t feel the achievement. (It also risks ruining the flow.) Ones above 10 pages make the novel more of a work out, but they are more accomplished each time they do so.
Number 2: The Subject Matter Matters.
At the end of each chapter, the characters should be in a different place than when the chapter started. It does not necessarily mean physically, or requires for a change of great magnitude. Very simply, something should have happened: something important (even subtly) about the character has been revealed, information that makes the consequences of failure even worse, or a piece of knowledge that allows the characters to change tactics or make a plan.
Writing a chapter based on what has actually occurred can take away the stress of choosing chapter length “for the wrong reasons,” whatever that is.
Number 3: Time Lapsing
One of the hardest parts of novel writing is to establish a passage of time in a non-distracting way. The easiest way to illustrate a change of time is by format. The characters announce they must travel to the next town over. Chapter. They’re in the next town over.
The problem is, if a story is movie-like, in which modern society tends to make them (this is not a negative choice), then there tend to be far more moments of jumping time and location than common in the classics, which means we’ll often have a story with a lot of chapters, chapters in which things don’t happen because the “moment” is not over. Moments in movies and televisions carry through a lot of locations naturally, in novels, it’s not as easy.
There are no simple solutions to a lot of time lapsing without chapter breaks. It takes experience and thought and is usually based on the context, making it hard to make blanket techniques.
Some suggestions are to play with formatting outside of a traditional chapter break. Adding a space break is like a chapter, but less distracting and takes up a lot of room in the page.
Switching back and forth between characters can work, but can easily be awkward. It is a delicate task to keep going from one scene to another with only a new paragraph as notice.
Summarizing the time-lapse is the best way:
“Let’s go to the park.”
They drove there in silence.
Upon arrival, they continued the silence. Finally Liz looked at her brother. “I don’t know what to do with you.
If a scene between two time lapses is short enough, it might be best to just summarize it all together to avoid having two chapter breaks so close together.
The best way to make decisions based on chapters is by trial and error, reading other people’s work and seeing how it plays out for them. Without clear standards, it becomes the main part of prose that works like poetry, giving the author leeway to change the rhythm of their story without being complete bizarre.