Often times, the little things are what count the most. I find that to be true both in life and in writing. In this series of blog posts, I plan to take a look at some of the little things I’ve learned over the years as a writer and share what I’ve found most effective in helping me tighten my craft. Today, let’s take a look at chapter length!
The more I submit querys to agents and editors, the more I find that some things are consistent (no telling) and some things are a matter of personal preference. Chapter length is one of the elements of a novel that seems to fall somewhere in between.
First, let’s start with the statement that chapter length should, first and foremost, always be dictated by the story itself. If you need a chapter that’s 1 sentence long, or takes up 1/2 the book, or is filled with blank pages (Stephanie Meyer did this in New Moon), then as the writer that is your prerogative. Some authors use chapters to change point of view (George R.R. Martin and Jodie Picoult come to mind). Some authors use them to change settings, especially when action is taking place in multiple places simultaneously. Chapter length is one of those elements in a book that can be used help you set pace, increase the dramatic tension, or keep a multitude of characters and settings straight (among other things).
That said, are there rules of thumb on page or word count for a chapter?
When I first wrote Blue Violet, I used Harlequin books as a rule of thumb on chapter length. I went with Harlequin because I was writing a romance–paranormal yes, but still romance. Wanting to stay consistent with the genre I selected, I went to examples of the experts. Based on the sample of books I looked through, the guideline I got from that was 12-24 pages/chapter (~3000-5000 words) depending on where you need to break in the story.
Then I started working with my awesome editor, Wendy, on Blue Violet edits. Knowing I planned to self-publish, she suggested that chapter length for books intended for eBook format needed to be shorter: about 5 type-written pages. That’s somewhere around 1200-1500 words or 1/2 the length of a print book. The argument for shorter chapter length for eBook is that digital readers don’t easily allow you to look ahead/skip ahead/see where you are. Shorter chapters cut down on frustration.
Keeping Readers Reading?
In addition, digital format seems to result in a more ADD approach to reading. Use of chapter breaks sooner, if done right to help heighten tension, keeps people reading longer. This was such logic, excellent advice, I’ve modeled my chapters on this length (5-8 pages depending on the story) ever since. Until… Recently I won a prize in the Brenda Novak Auction for a critique from a Harlequin Senior Editor. One of the smaller items the editor mentioned was chapter length. The argument against the shorter chapters is that they feel more like short scenes rather than full chapters making it harder to get fully sucked in and giving readers more opportunities to put the book down. I can absolutely see validity in that point as well.
Why Isn’t There More Advice?
Based on this latest advice, I’m back to my original conundrum. How long should I make my chapters? A quick search on Google turned up very little as every article said what I’ve already said…let the story dictate the chapter length. I find this very interesting, because there are many elements out there–from the biggies like character development to the subtler parts of the craft like setting descriptions–that have TONS of advice. All of these elements are also dictated by the story, but there are methods, rules of thumb, and processes you can try in an effort to improve your writing. But chapter length? The only advice I find is “let the story dictate.” (Note: I did find articles on chapter breaks. We’ll explore those separately at another time.)
Share Your Thoughts!
What do you think? Assuming story still dictates where the chapter breaks fall, do you feel there is a rule of thumb for chapter length? Does it differ by genre? By format (print or eBook)? What are your personal preferences as a reader?