How to: Chapters
Something I found myself wondering the other night, while trying to outline a story of mine, was;
How in the world am I even supposed to do this?
I'm sure many of you have asked yourself exactly the same question. So... what do I do when I feel a little out of my depth in a subject matter? I open yet another tab on my trusty google browser and I start researching the topic.
And that’s exactly what I did: A little discouraged, I started typing in some key words up, and soon, I found myself falling into a rabbit hole of articles discussing how lengthy you should write your chapters.
And, because I can; I wanted to share a little bit about what I learned from reading these articles with whomever may be reading.
I want to make it clear to all of you right now, that chapter length? It doesn't actually really matter that much.
Rather, I want to point out that the chapter breaks are the most important here, as they are one of the key rhythmical features of a novel; They give your story a beat, and like in a poem, it aids you in enhancing the experience you're trying to provide to the reader. I would even go as far as identifying them as a literary device.
A new chapter should be made when:
There is a change of point-of-view character
There is a major change of scene
There is a major jump in time
A major sequence of action has just been completed
Chapters are generally the major (and most common) subdivision you can find in a book or a novel. These are often marked by a page break, and may be numbered or titled, or both, in some occasions. Though, I don’t think that’s something necessary you have to think about from the very first moment you start planning your story.
Some books may also be divided into parts as well. These are put into use when you want to separate radically different sections in your novel. Note that the differences should be sudden, and only happen once or twice; when there’s a change in time, place or narrators.
Individual chapters may also have minor separation breaks indicated by, for example, an asterisk.
Now, say you still want to figure out what the perfect chapter length is for you. What do you do? As far as I can tell? You don’t actually choose your chapter lengths. Like I stated in the beginning, chapter lengths aren’t very important. It’s something that comes after you’ve finished writing your story anyway, as the story itself will insert its own natural breaks as you change scenes, viewpoint, etc.
The question you want to ask yourself is:
How much text should the reader be asked to read before you give them a break?
There are a few points you should consider however, when thinking about chapter length, if you wish to have your novel published:
Too short: 1000 words or under
Very short: 1000-1500 words
These types of chapters have a jump-cut, fast-edited quality to them, and works great for action fiction.
NB! If your average chapter length falls below 1000 words, you have to rethink and check if you have given enough weight and depth to the scenes you want to play out, because even if it’s action, it needs to have the space to make an impression.
Short: 1500-2000 words
Standard: 2000 to 4000 words
Long: 4000 to 5000 words
Very long: over 5000
These ‘rules’ are mostly used for adult novels, as kids’ books will have chapter lengths that vary by age range. Most books lie in the 2000-4000 word range for each chapter. The rules aren’t set in stone however, as you will note shortly in the list just down below; listing famous novels, along with word counts and chapter lengths:
Before we continue over to the next point I want to discuss, I just want to conclude this section by stating again that beats, similar to a punctuation mark, gives the reader a moment’s pause. Use this to your advantage: I would recommend experimenting with the chapter rhythms by mixing it up. Variate the chapter lengths!
‘But, Curiosity, how do I end the chapter?’
I’m glad you asked! There are several ways to end a chapter, and the ones I’ll be mentioning are only, but a few of them:
First of all we have to realize that a scene/chapter is there to tell its own little story;; with a beginning, middle and end. If it does not have that, you should scrap it. Stories are about change, so therefore scenes must be about change too, right? ‘Filler chapters’ is a grand pet peeve of mine that I absolutely abhor, and frankly, if they do not add anything extra to the story, they aren’t supposed to be there.
A scene is typically based around some kind of story question which is then resolved or changed by the end of the scene; a good way to end a chapter is to highlight or encapsulate the change that has just happened. We call this a symbolic reversal.
You can also have a closing paragraph that looks back to the past, or one that gives a hint of the future. I wouldn’t call this a cliffhanger, but it reminds the reader that there is more to come in the near future.
Then of course, last, but not least there’s the classic cliffhanger. This has been done a number of times, and it can be done in a very good way, if executed properly.
Then there’s the dreaded question of ‘Prologues and epilogues, or nah?’
The answer is simple, if you have no good reason for writing one, do yourself a favor and just don’t. The opening chapter is all about catching the reader’s attention and having them want to come back for more. We have to consider that the prologue - however crucial it may be - is still a barrier that the reader has to confront before the story-proper begins. It’s a good idea to keep it as brief as possible, if you’re going to include it anyway.
The prologue is a pre-story that informs the reader of some event from the past that is necessary, to understand the present.
You won’t face the same problem of keeping the readers interested when it comes to the epilogue. These are actually more rare in novels, and they give you a glimpse of the aftermath of the story (not the immediate one, but say, 5-10 years from where the story ended, or more). Only include the epilogue if you believe it adds something to the novel, and isn’t therefore anticlimactic.
In the end, you’re the writer, and it’s your story. There are no rules, just guidelines and trends used by those prior to you. You can do whatever you want to do, because you’re the one writing and creating this world, and these characters. I think that we, as writers, get so into our head sometimes about making our draft perfect on the first try, that we forget why we started writing in the first place. Remember, writing is supposed to be fun. That’s why we do it, no?
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading my ramblings. If this topic is something that interests you, I encourage you to do your own research. Consider this post a starting point for whatever else you may find on your own.
Articles for further reading:
How long should a chapter be? https://jerichowriters.com/hub/average-novel-wordcount/how-long-chapter/
How Many Words Are There In A Novel? https://jerichowriters.com/hub/average-novel-wordcount/
Anatomy of a Novel: Chapters and Parts https://www.novel-writing-help.com/novel-chapters.html
9 Book Design Tips that Authors Need to Know https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2010/09/9-book-design-tips-that-authors-need-to-know/