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How Long Should Your Chapters Be? Should There Be Chapters At All??

By on April 02, 2015 . Category Column

A question almost every writer will ask themselves at one point or another (or at several points in the writing process) is: “How long should my chapters be?”

Here are the primary concerns I’ve found in myself and my fellow writers:

-          My chapters are too long

-          My chapters are too short

-          My chapters vary too much in length

-          Should I name my chapters, or just use numbers?

That’s by no means an exhaustive list, but I do try to keep things simple.

So I’m here to assure you of one thing: None of this matters.

Seriously, chapter length is one of those things that’s completely stylistic. There are no hard-and-fast rules. It’s entirely a matter of personal choice and how you like your chapters to be.

For instance, I personally like to keep my chapters relatively consistent. However, if I can make a dramatic impact with a short chapter, or if I need to make a major perspective shift after only a short scene, I’ll do it. This might leave me with one chapter that goes on for six pages, with the next chapter only going for two, but if the story calls for it, I’ll do it.

I read a book once—and I can’t for the life of me remember the title—that used chapter length to express the decaying mental state of the narrator. Earlier chapters were short, as she recovered from trauma. Then, as she began to heal, they became longer, more detailed, and more intricate. Towards the end of the book, when her mind started to deteriorate for different reasons, chapters got short again. One of the final chapters consisted of a single, succinct sentence. While in the midst of reading, this was actually a very powerful emotional tactic that drove the author’s point home in an almost tangible way.

Some authors don’t even use chapters. I’ve seen books that simply use line breaks to indicate a scene change (sometimes just with a space, sometimes with a symbol between paragraphs). It creates a continuous flow in the novel that, for the right story, works great.

So back to the question of how long your chapters should be: Aim for whatever works best for your story. If you like to keep things uniform, you can set yourself a word/page range that you can aim for. This will probably vary from book to book, as different stories call for different styles.

If this gets overwhelming and stressful, just keep things simple. Do basic chapters and don’t stress too much about the length. As long as your chapters aren’t 15,000 words each, it’s unlikely anyone will even notice you’re doing anything different with them.

As for naming vs. chapter numbers, that’s even more “entirely up to you” than the rest of this stuff. I never name my chapters unless I have a very good reason and some very good names—numbers work fine (and most people aren’t paying attention, anyway!).

As always, just do what feels right for your story, and for your style. The whole point of writing is that we’re all unique, and that unique flavor is what makes each of us great in our own ways. So don’t lose that to technicalities—preserving your voice is worth a couple stylistic differences between artists.

 

What’s your preferred chapter style and length?

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