Tuesday, December 15, 2009

WRT: Rules of the Road - Chapter Length and Chapter Length Consistency

[Rules of the Road is an occasional segment of the Writer's RoadTrip. I'll discuss a selected writing "rule" and talk about its underlying rationale. This knowledge in hand, writers can be more confident when breaking the rules.]

Faced with the idea that there is some set standard, what writer hasn't asked at some point, "How long is a chapter?" And while there are many opinions and no simple answer, there are a few things to consider when thinking about chapter length and, just as importantly, chapter length consistency.

But first, what should a chapter contain? In essence, a chapter really has to encompass an entire scene, in some cases more than one. Unfortunately, the term "scene" can be broadly defined, which makes the task more difficult. It can be as simple as something the MC does ("Tuesday morning I got up and went to Fluffy's funeral."), or be as complex and drawn out as the Battle of the Midway.

I like to think of a scene in terms of a package with three pieces:
1) it begins by describing some new problem,
2) raises the stakes for your MC, and
3) concludes at some critical decision or turning point.

The next scene will do the same. If your chapter doesn't accomplish these three things at least once, you've cut off your scene prematurely. If your chapter contains more than one scene, consider whether they are related and contribute in a way that they build upon each other. Readers have become trained to expect this.

OK, but how long should a chapter be? Well, obviously that first depends on your target audience. Shorter chapters for younger readers, longer for older readers with longer attention spans. Second, sophistication and treatment of material. Early readers/chapter books need to be straightforward; YA and adult novels... well, you get the picture.

Often ignored is the impact of reader tolerance. Your nine-year-old isn't going to have the patience to slog through a 5000-word chapter. And your adult novel isn't going to seem meaty enough if the chapters top out at 500 words.

I try to adhere to the following guidelines:
200-500 words for early chapter books
500-1500 for middle grade
1500-2500 for tween
1500-3500 for YA
2000-4500 for adult

These are just guidelines I set for myself for the types of stories I write. Your numbers may differ. Of course, other factors will impact these numbers for you, primarily your style. But not everyone is Cormac McCarthy. Not everyone can get away with not having chapters at all.

Now, on to chapter length consistency.

I've seen very strong opinions on this, most on the side of keeping chapter lengths within a particular work within a narrow range. "Avoid varying chapters by much more than +/-10%." In other words, in a 75K-word novel with an average chapter length of 3000 words, chapters should range from 2700-3300 words. I think this is a bit tight, though I do agree in priniciple with its rationale: Readers develop a sense of timing and rhythm after the first few chapters, and set their expectations for later chapters. If a chapter is much shorter than expected, the reader feels cheated. If much longer, he begins to get antsy, lose patience and attention. And you don't want your reader to feel any of those things.

But does that mean every chapter needs to conform to some narrow range? Does it mean I need to expand my 1200-word scene so it falls within my 3000-word average +/- 300 words? Of course not. The scene must work as best written. Just keep in mind what effect it might have if uncharacteristically long or short. If short, make it rewarding enough for the reader, which means accomplishing those three things I mentioned above. If much longer, make sure it captures and holds onto your reader's attention.

One last thought. Layered over all of this is the structure of the entire work. In general, longer chapters slow pace and are more appropriate in the early and middle sections of the book; shorter chapters pick up the pace and are more appropriate for building up to the climax.

So, now you know. Which means you won't have to be a rule robot. If your work demands an unconventional chapter structure, great. The Writing Police have no juristiction here. Just as long as you understand the impact and can deal with them effectively.

Happy RoadTripping.

6 comments:

  1. I write no more than 2,500 words in a chapter (10 pages standard spacing and font). Some chapters are considerably shorter, because it depends on the pacing, conflict, and theme of the chapter. I write YA, by the way.

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  2. Great breakdown! Someone once told me that 10 pages is a good length for a chapter, and when I went back and looked at my writing, I realized that most of my chapters were around that length. I write MG and YA, but you're right that with younger MG my chapters do tend to be shorter (around 6-7 pages).

    It always intrigues me to read books that aren't divided up into chapters. I can't imagine writing that way but it can absolutely work for certain books. I wonder if we read them differently when they're only broken up into scenes?

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  3. I think the 2500-word guideline is right on for YA, Medeia. Takes an average reader ~15 minutes, which is a manageable chunk of time. And chapter length MUST be a factor of pace and theme, as youi mention, rather than dictate it.

    My writing tends to be fairly dense, so 2500 words runs about 8.5 pages for me. I've frequently heard the 250 wpp value cited, and I've been trying to open up my own writing to be closer to this; you just can't underestimate the value of white space.

    Anne, when I first started reading McCarthy's works, I found myself waiting for the chapter to end. It never did. His style is to insert double paragraph breaks at the ends of scenes. After several pages, this difference becomes somewhat invisible. Not entirely, though. I think our brains have been conditioned to think in chapter-sized chunks and to expect those cues (the white space at the end of a chapter and the large type heading the next). Maybe it's just like having those commercial breaks - excuses to get up and go to the bathroom!

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  4. super belated reply, but this is the best summary of chapter suggestions I've read (and I've read a few). It's been very helpful, thanks!

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  5. If anybody wants to see some stats, I've posted an article exploring the trends in chapter lengths from a variety of fantasy novels. I can't say how long a chapter SHOULD be, but I CAN show you how some of the masters tend to treat length. You'll find the article at http://creativityhacker.ca/2013/07/18/analyzing-chapter-lengths-in-fantasy-fiction/

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  6. Good info., and glad it's still up years after it was posted -- thanx internet. Just a couple things to add:
    Consistent chapter length is nice because many readers schedule it into their day, i.e. 3 chapters while commuting on the train or 2 chapters on lunch break (I read 1 chapter before bed every night)
    I dislike when books aren't divided into chapters, like those of my favorite writer, Terry Pratchett.
    I'm forced to just read 10 pages every night, regardless of where that lands. :)

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