A lot of writers who are new to the world of novels tend to be concerned about a few simple things: writing their character properly according to gender (which I addressed a few posts ago), writing an awesome villain (which I’ve addressed in the past… back in June I believe), and chapter length (which I’m going to address today).
Why is chapter length something to be concerned about?
Because if the chapters are too short, then the book won’t be long enough, right? And if they’re too long, they’ll be too short, right?
Let’s explore those two things, and then delve into what really makes a chapter strong.
Most new writers worry about the number of pages or the number of words they have in a chapter. “This is only four pages, is it long enough?” “My chapter is over thirty pages, is that too long?”
The truth is expressed in a very simple answer: length is irrelevant as long as the reader is engaged. That’s the honest, simple truth. Think back to all the books you’ve enjoyed. How many chapters do you remember by length?
Probably zero, unless you have a weirdly specific memory.
The only books I remember having chapters that were too long are the books I got bored with halfway through a chapter. Books with chapters that are too long almost always present more of a problem than books with short chapters.
In fact, there are only three instances of short chapters I remember: The Raven Boys Cycle had a few chapters that were a page or less (including one that was half a sentence). I remember these short chapters because they were intriguing. They pulled me in, instead of pulling me out. Allegiant (by Veronica Roth) had a few short chapters near the end. I remember these because I disliked them. They didn’t fit with the style of the rest of the trilogy. They weren’t consistent with the feel and fit. So they stood out, and jerked me out of the story for a variety of reasons. And then the Tale of Despereaux also comes to mind. The chapters in this book are all very short (two to four pages). It works incredibly well for this book, because it’s consistent throughout, the chapters accomplish what they need, and they fit the book as a whole.
When you’re anxious about chapter length, consider these things and nothing else: does the chapter accomplish what you need it to? Does it fit the average length of the rest of your chapters? Is it engaging to the very end?
Nothing else matters.
“But if all my chapters are short, then it won’t be a novel!”
Then consider these things:
-Is the scene vivid? Oftentimes, writers with short chapters have little to no description. The setting isn’t clear in the slightest, except for rarely. Emotions are usually l-acking. So, if your chapters are too short, then make sure that you’re creating vivid images of emotion and setting throughout.
-Is your story goal sufficient? If you feel like you don’t have enough material, then maybe it’s too easy to accomplish the end goal. Try making it harder. Don’t let the hero succeed as often as they probably do.
-Does it have to be a novel? Here’s the deal: not all stories are made to be novels. Some stories are only the length of a novella or a short story. And you know what? That’s okay. It’s okay to write short stories sometimes. It’s perfectly fine to write a novella. Your writing should be more about telling a good story than trying to reach a word count or a certain number of pages.
Rather than focusing on how long a chapter is, we should instead focus on what is in a chapter. There are two basic building blocks of chapters: beats and scenes. I think this is where new writers can find the most benefit in learning. Those who have chapters that people get bored with have too many of these building blocks in a chapter, and those who feel their chapters are too short may be missing a part or two.
So let’s explore these things a bit.
The scene is the most basic building block of any chapter.
In short, every chapter needs a minimum of one scene and (in my opinion) a maximum of three. This is rather vague, of course, if we don’t define what a scene is. A scene is a collection of actions, dialogue, and emotional shifts that take place in one setting, all of which result in some net change.
In other words, something has to happen, and something has to change. You need both. If something happens, but for all intents and purposes your characters have not changed, then it’s not a scene. On the other hand, if something changes for no reason, with no intentional action, then it’s not a scene.
This something many writers forget, and it’s also the main reason why new writers can have very, very short chapters that don’t feel finished. They don’t have a full scene in their chapter. Instead, they have either action or change, but not both.
The action is the easy part. Anyone can create dialogue or movement. Anyone.
However, change is the hard part. It’s difficult to create a true change in a character’s arc. It takes work, especially to have a change in every scene. Rather, it’s much easier to set up the change in one “scene” and execute it in another.
That, however, is weak. It creates a useless scene of “set up” that the reader doesn’t care about. Writers try to make their work easier by creating something the reader doesn’t want to read. That’s dangerous. These “half-scenes” are necessary, but fail to make good chapters as a whole.
I like to call these half-scenes beats.
Beats are the fundamental building block of a chapter. Simply put, a beat is a small collection of actions, thoughts, description, or dialogue. A scene is a collection of beats, and a chapter is a collection of one or two scenes.
Beats are commonly confused as scenes. We see a set of actions or a conversation as a scene, but beats do not necessarily have a change within them. A beat can be something as simple as a character pouring cereal into a bowl.
That’s not a scene. Nothing really changes. But it is a beat. When combined with other beats, the pouring of cereal can become a scene very quickly.
Our True Concern
We want our books to be the right length.
We want readers to pick up our book and go “yeah, I want to spend time reading this thing and it’s the length I like”.
Is there anything wrong with that?
It’s natural to want readers to read your book. In fact, you should want readers to read your book. There comes a time, however, where we have to stop worrying about the reader. Especially when we’re writing. If all we do is worry about the reader, we’ll never finishing writing something for them to read. It’s impossible to please every reader, so you have to make a choice: who do you please?
Make yourself happy. Choose to write something well, something that is complete and contains everything you wanted and needed it to contain. Once you’ve done that, you can start looking around. Once you’ve actually made something with complete chapters, full scenes, total changes, and intensely promising beats, then you can take the time to make sure that your readers will want to read it.