Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Chapter Length

I'm often asked how long a chapter should be, and the answer is, of course, as long as it needs to be. Which is, of course, tremendously helpful. Here is an alternative answer.

Chapters may be very short, or very long, but they're usually about enough for a person to read one or two chapters before going to sleep at night. I'd say, somewhere between 1,000 and 6,000 words. Much shorter than 1000 and it feels a bit flimsy; over 6,000 and it starts to feel a bit unwieldy. (This is a generalisation and you'll be able to point to lots of writers who write longer chapters - JK Rowling comes to mind.)

I always recommend writing in scenes rather than chapters, and if you think scenes being between 500-3,500 words, then you're going to have anything from 1 to 5 scenes in a chapter. If you're the sort of person who likes to do a lot of forward planning (and I'm not) you might work on a scheme of 3 scenes per chapter, each scene 1,000 to 2,000 words long. Twenty chapters like this, averaging 4,000-5,000 words and you've got a complete novel. It's not my way of working, but it could work for you.

Vary the length of your chapters so the reader is constantly surprised and so drawn into continuing to read. Shorter chapters increase the pace, so it's usually good for them to get shorter towards the end of the novel (again, that's a generalisation). Finally, however long you make them, give your chapters good must-carry-on-reading endings.


Liz Harris said...

That was an interesting blog, Sarah. I used to believe that chapters all had to be more or less the same length; that sort of thinking can be stultifying.

giselle green said...

Hi Sarah, I agree, I always write in scenes too. Just wanted to say what a wonderful set of blogs you have here - have spent FAR too much time this morning reading them and they've cheered me up immensely for no apparent reason!

Sarah Duncan said...

Liz - variety is the spice of life for chapters too! I blogged about the subject because I know it's something people ask me about and it doesn't seem to get covered in writing books.

Giselle - thanks! I'm glad the blog's cheered you up and hope it makes up for the time you spent reading them.