Size Matters – Or Does It?
Chapter lengths in novels can vary greatly. Some are very short, some change in accordance with a character’s point of view. Some books don’t have official chapters at all – instead they have a star, or simply a gap which indicates that it’s a good opportunity to go to the bathroom, get a snack and replenish your tea. This can ultimately affect the text as a whole. The pace may be changed from this – a barrage of short chapters may skip quickly through time, where one hefty chapter of several thousand words can be a long hard slog in which a large chunk of detail can be put across without breaking the flow of the action.
But how important are chapter lengths?
Does it make a difference for you?
I find when I write that I can be ploughing through, constructing conversations, building suspense, creating action. And then suddenly it’ll occur to me that my writing is automatically stopping itself. I’ll find myself drawing naturally to a conclusion where the chapter will come to a natural end. This tends to be around 1,200-2,000 words, depending on how much action I decided to put into the first half of the chapter. If I’ve included a lot, I tend to write a bit more so as to bring it to a natural stop. Likewise if the point of the chapter is character development, or building relationships, it may be a shorter chapter focused around a single conversation that doesn’t last long, but forms a path for the next piece of action to go down.
Yet despite this, I find some people writing very long chapters all the time. This can go either way, in my opinion. Sometimes, if a chapter is interesting and captivating enough to make you want to read in one sitting, it’s a good idea to let it run on. But it’s also true then that if a chapter is really going nowhere, yet keeps going and keeps going, but you know you should finish it before you put it down for a rest, it can be relentless. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that long chapters can sometimes be painful.
I recently chose to start a new novella for the purpose of a competition I heard about online (link in an earlier post, Project Spotlight #3, for anyone interested). I decided there would be four main characters and that each chapter would cycle between them. I started with an introductory chapter cycle where we meet each character on a specific day to see how different their lives were. But, in writing the first of the series, for my character Damien Lethe, I found it was only 820 words long when I drew it to a close. Is this a good idea? Maybe short paragraphs of condensed action into short chapters is a good place to start, but I’ve never written a chapter this short before.
What do you think? Long or short chapters to start with? When you first pick up a book, would you rather have a few shorter chapters or longer chapters?