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CHAPTER LENGTH

September 25, 2019

The other day, my good friend Toni asked a question on our writer’s group forum about chapter length. It was no surprise that she got a bunch of different answers.

I’ve discussed chapters before in several articles and alluded to length but this time, I want to specifically deal with how long a chapter should be.

WHY HAVE CHAPTERS AT ALL?

The big question pertaining to this subject is: Why have chapters at all?

It harkens back to the reason we have punctuation. There was a book published in Spain decades ago, that I’ve mentioned here at Fred Central periodically. The book is a couple of hundred pages long and is one sentence. The only punctuation mark in the entire book is a period at the end. That’s it. I’ve never seen the book, but have heard plenty about it. Can you just imagine a single sentence two hundred plus pages long?

I can’t stand to read a single paragraph that takes up half a page, let alone a full one.

I can’t stand a book with only a couple of chapters, and few scenes.

Why?

Pauses for thoughts – breaks to regroup, rethink, like scenes in a movie, or on TV.

Commercial breaks (though I despise commercials).

THAT’S why we have chapters.

It’s the same reason we not only have punctuation, but sentences and paragraphs. To break the story down and make it more manageable and digestible.

SHORT OR LONG?

I don’t completely buy into this “it takes whatever it takes” thing.

Why?

That gives the author free reign to ramble. When a chapter or scene is too long, it becomes tedious. Period.

I’ve been reading for a little over sixty years. Sitting down for long periods has never been comfortable without some kind of break, especially when I was a young’un. Then those bursts of reading got longer as I got older, and now they’re getting a little shorter again.

Why?

Not only does my body insist, but my mind needs a break, and I have a lower tolerance for bullshit and rambling.

When a chapter or scene is too long, that tells me (consciously and subconsciously) that the author doesn’t know when to shut up and get organized.

Long chapters means the author doesn’t know how to pace correctly.

On the other hand, super-short chapters can either be seen as hyperactive and disjointed, or perfect for reading during commercials.

I’m perfectly fine with short chapters as long as they have a beginning, a middle and an end. If the chapter is a single paragraph, with nothing but a burst of thought, THAT’S a bad chapter. I’ve seen it before, plenty of times.

On the other hand, I’ve seen seventy and eighty page chapters with one and two-page paragraphs and they were pure torture.

To me, moderation is the key.

YOU KNOW WHAT?

On the other hand, your book DOES need to take as many chapters as necessary, but you have to consider your reader, and whether you want to punish them, or not let the writing get in the way of the story.

Think about it.

I tend for short chapters, or long ones with short scenes.

I’m quite happy with moderate chapters broken up with scenes.

You know what? I’m not at all alone in this feeling. In my unofficial polling, which I do all the time, I get unprompted comments from non-writer readers about books (in other words, our potential audience). I hear all kinds of things, and pertaining to this discussion, a biggie is “I thought that chapter would never end.” “That guy (or gal) doesn’t know when to shut up.” “That was just plain tedious.”

SUMMARY

You don’t have to have 80 chapters in your story, but you also don’t have to have 3. You can be reasonable and keep the PACING going so the reader doesn’t get bogged down.

A book should have as many chapters as it takes, but the key is keeping the pacing up so you don’t punish the reader.

Happy writing!

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