In a recent discussion we talked chapters - how long should they be, in particular.
So when this article turned up in an an email newsletter I thought I’d share it here.
I feel I have a handle on how long my own chapters should be, and how and when to end them, but it involves a lot of things in my weird decision making process, so it’d be hard to put into words.
Anyway, here’s one person’s opinion on the topic:
In a recent discussion we talked chapters - how long should they be, in particular.
This is something I always struggle with, probably because I spent so many years as a short story writer. As a result, I tend to just write through without establishing chapters until I can see and feel the natural breaks.
That approach seems pretty natural to me. I think that has to be the basis of it, for sure.
I have to admit, I always tend to finish one chapter and start the next when it feels right. But recently I’ve been working through Daniel’s online course “Writing Great Chapters” and the first lesson (which I think he also offers free as a taster/tempter) addresses this question: his answer is “one to two unicorns” But in fact, amusement aside (and apparently the term unicorns was coined by one of his prior students), replace the term with “scene” and you get one to two scenes per chapter.
In light of the article Luke highlighted in his post, from Janice Hardy’s site, and what you get from Daniel’s lesson on the subject, we’re all kind of right in that whatever “feels” right is likely to be at the completion of a scene, or if highly connected, the completion of two scenes. It is a resting point, a time for reflection as apparently Henry Fielding (novelist) said in 1742. The only difference between then and now I’d say is our expectations of when that rest is required, as our reading habits and styles change with the centuries. I’d also suggest that the length will vary with genre and reading age for the same reasons.
This is always, to my way of thinking, an interesting topic. I’m fascinated by those rare-ish books where there is a single paragraph or even a single sentence set as a chapter. The impact such minute chapters make is immeasurable. Both brilliant when done well and very difficult to emulate.
3 things i wanted to comment on this.
I use scrivener, and I put my target length of 2000 word count (or however long I want), and the software tells me when I’ve reached my goal. That being said I’ve averaged the length of my chapters using the formula I’ve learned Total length/how many words I write weekly. I spent time timing myself on sprints. I figured out my word count average per hour. I figured out how many hours a week I have to write with help (DARIA WHITE - No Time Writer method). If i can only write 5 hours a week, my book of 80000 will take me X amount of time for the year. If I write 5 hours a week, and my average writing gives me 5000-word count (let’s say) and 80000/5000 = 16 weeks. If I want to write to a faster deadline, I will need to write more words per week or write faster. And my target chapter length would be based on book length and 25%/50%/25% breakdown of 3 acts. If I want my chapter length to be 2500 word count, then I divide 20000/40000/20000 by 2500. This would be 8/16/8 chapters. If that’s too many chapters or I want no more than 20 chapters I need to adjust the length…to say 3000 = 7/13/7 or 3500 = 6/11/6
Pull up your top favorite books that you’ve ever read. Is this what genre you are writing? It should be close. What did those authors do? I mean it could be that simple. If you are seeing 4000-word count per chapter (keeping in mind the actual physical size of your book, you can estimate a single standard paperback book page at roughly 200 w.c. (usually). You can google other book sizes and estimated pages. Most are based on 12 font size. Regardless, 4000/200 x 20 pages per chapter. If your author writes 8-page chapters, that’s roughly 200 x 8 = 1600, and you notice they have a 52-chapter book…well, that’s what you like.
Is there a requirement to make the chapters similar in length? NO. Many famous authors wrote complete chapters that were less than 10 words. Two examples here:
Author: Stephen King
Year: 1987 Chapter: “Rinse”
Author: Lewis Carroll
Title: ''Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There"
Year: 1871 Chapter: “And it really was a kitten after all.”
So all this is to say…do what you want. But realize there are some really good resources that discuss this topic and help you figure it out. Some great books on figuring it out might not be the ones you think, Chapter length takes some real math and thinking. Check out
It Takes An Egg Timer: A Guide To Creating The Time For Your Life by Joanne Tombrakos she not only discusses the Pomodoro technique but why you want to increase your writing word count. Or check out Write Better, Faster: How To Triple Your Writing Speed and Write More Every Day by Monica Leonelle an incredible book that shows you tracking tools and trends and so much research and why she researched. And you can read more books on chapter length as necessary, but figure out why you want them longer or shorter is really my preference.
Interesting notes you’ve added. Thank you. But I have to confess, I stumbled over the second point you made, about comparing chapter lengths withing those books I love. The reason? I took a look as you suggested and the chapters vary substantially from one book to the next, and often within the same book.
I’d say take an average, but yes, some authors vary the chapter length tremendously. I know one author that wrote many, many books (Anne McCaffrey) who wrote nice long chapters and is a favorite that I reread even today.
Dragonflight - page count 254, chapters 29 = roughly 8.75 pages each chapter.
DragonQuest - page count 354, chapters 16 = 22 pages each chapter.
And you can play with this. In the genre of science fiction or speculative fiction, you can opt to remove the first, and the last chapter cause those are probably shorter (i.e. with a prologue or epilogue)
Other examples -
Christine by Steven King (horror) - page count 498, chapters 51 = 9.76 pages per chapter
The Perfect Hope by Nora Roberts (romance) - page count 336, chapters 21 = 16 pages per chapter
I’m a bit of a mathematics nerd, so I tend to be very wary of how averages can mislead us; often the median is a much better guide. As a simple example, if you imagined a hypothetical book of 400 pages in 20 chapters, with 19 chapters of length 1 and one chapter of 380 pages, the average of 20 wouldn’t really give you the true picture. Or if the book alternated 1 page chapters with 39 page chapters, likewise.
I think the length of chapters form a kind of background rhythm to the book, and I think variation in chapter length is a little like waves in the ocean (except in this metaphor the shorter chapters tend to match a bigger wave, because shorter scenes tend to feel more concentrated and intense.)
Regarding your mention of the writing time: at first that confused me, because how my own writing time correlates to chapter length, varies a lot. Often I’ll write a chapter in an intense burst, so the length matches the writing time well. But other times though I’ll take much longer to write a chapter; I’ll kind of build it out from loosely connected nuggets that fit together more tightly as I discover what’s happening; or go back and edit it heavily to clarify, intensify, or weave some new element into it.
I think every author is different though.
Anyway, I assume you mentioned the writing time because for you it tends to match the chpater length better than it does for me.
I also suspect the topic of chapter length and what goes into a chapter is a topic that interests most of us, and that some of the magic of a book is determined by how the chapters are structured.
To end on a super prosaic note: I prefer in general to have five to ten pages per chapter (typically 350 words / final printed page).
At the risk of looking like a complete doofus, here’s my (completely invented and unscientific) “Oomph Analysis” of my third book; I choose to divide the “score” I give each chapter by its page length because I feel the length reduces the impact rather than add to it. (I haven’t really dug into that assumption, I confess.)
And yeah, I try to do this self-analysis to try to distance myself from my own work and try to see patterns in it. I use a spreadsheet, after it’s written. (Shrug.)
Proper science. Woah. Love the colour coding. Is that an empirical measure or best guess? And I thought my monster spreadsheet was overkill.
The left hand side of my spreadsheet is a chapter and scene breakdown with word count. Notionally I’m in trouble. Shortest chapter 216 words. Longest 3870 (candidate for a split). Average chapter 1944, 40 chapters, 75k total. Yes, I write short.
I have no pattern to chapter length other than keeping them short and breaking where it feels right. Some chapter breaks are artificially at scene changes rather than a change of location or time. Reminded of the Clint Eastwood story, he rarely says ‘cut’, more likely ‘that’s enough of that.’ Seems a good way to think of it.
I forget who said ‘make your chapters and scenes as long as they need to be and no longer,’ but I’m going with it. Whether the reader goes with me I wait to find out.
Empirical? Ha, I wish! No, but it is my subjective attempt to be objective. I try to be honest with myself. I read through, chapter by chapter, and then pause and score myself out of 5 in each of those categories for the chapter, then continue. (After I’ve polished it; and/or after I’ve completed it following my editor’s feedback and advice.)
I may have to try this, if only to balance out my ‘Oomphs’, or spot when I unbalance my Oopmhs within a chapter.
Do we have a new unit of measure? The Oomph?
I was circling back on these topics to see what others wrote. I think my attempt at explaining writing time was as an estimate only. Everybody has “those” days of inspiration or desperation
The timing was to attempt to lock down a schedule and estimate a completion date. This works on average. If your track your word count over the entire book, along with the time it took to write it, you should figure out your average or estimated writing time. Not huge science, just small smiley science. Everyone is very different. Someone once told me if you don’t track your stats, you will never know anything. So write for a week or two and time it, and check the word count. It will give you that average to determine how long it might take to write a novel of X pages. I mean, if you set your goal to write 1000 words a day and crush that for 2 solid weeks, you can see your output and set a completion date.
PS loved that color graph and it put my own graphs to shame. Nice job.