Hello my friends! Welcome to another new writers blog topic. Thanks for stopping in. This is the first of four blog topics I’ll be posting through October in celebration of “Prep-tober” for upcoming NaNoWriMo. If you don’t know what National Novel Writing Month is, I encourage you to visit <nanowrimo.com > and have a looksie. The long and short of it is, you write a novel, or 50,000 words towards a novel, in one month. It’s a chance to challenge yourself.
Fun fact: Did you know that the first book I ever wrote, Talon the Black, was written during NaNoWriMo 2015 as a way to challenge myself and try out writing?
Okay, let’s get started. I received a question about chapter lengths and it got me thinking **taps chin** The questioner went as far as to say that my books have the “perfect” chapter lengths (I’m so flattered!! Thank you!) and, “How do I decide what length my chapters should be?”
Well…I’ve seen chapter lengths as short as a few paragraphs (The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King) or as long as pages and pages and pages. New writers might be wondering, what is correct? The answer is, anything! You probably don’t want to hear this but, YOU are the writer, so YOU get to choose!
I know, I know. Cliché. You were hoping I had some specific magical answer like, “All chapters should be 2000 words in length, nothing more, nothing less.” HAHA! Sorry.
What I can do is tell you how I write my chapters, how I decide what length they should be, and some discussion on what I’ve seen others recommend.
When I started writing, it was on Wattpad. I knew literally NOTHING about writing. Wattpad had several “recommendations” guides on building stories for beginners. One was about chapter lengths. Wattpad recommended authors aim for 2000 words. This was, apparently, the ideal chapter length for readers reading on their app. Something about this burrowed into my brain, and ever since, I’ve considered this my “goal” for writing chapters.
When I first started writing Talon the Black, I tried VERY HARD to stick to the 2000 word length. If it ended up being longer, I was tempted to move the excess to a new chapter. I considered this the rule. Breaking rules = bad!!! So if you look at my early writing, my chapters feel much shorter and move faster. Their average length is 2000 words.
In time, as I got better at writing, I stopped worrying about lengths. I wanted to end my chapters on a pinnacle point. I mostly write “serial style” stories where chapters post each week on Wattpad. If I end a chapter on a small cliff hanger, it brings readers back next week. Or if the book is complete, it keeps readers flipping the pages. Both are a good thing!
A couple years into my writing career, I started studying story structure. I wanted to know the mechanics on how to build the “perfect” story. One of the aspects that comes with plotting and story structure is chapter lengths. I learned that a chapter should be similar to an upside down pyramid. When the chapter starts, you should start broad. As the chapter progresses, you should hone in on an idea and by the end, everything should culminate to a point.
I found this image here: https://thenovelsmithy.com/chapter-structure/
Now, this sounds great in theory, but in reality, a lot of us probably don’t do metaphorical upside down pyramids. The idea stuck, so when I can, I really try to condense my ideas down in each chapter to build suspense. If you end a chapter with suspense, the reader will want to jump to the next chapter.
Now, my chapters are more dynamic in length. I’ve had some chapters at 2000 words and others at 5000 words. I try to trust my gut more than the word count. If I’m at a good stopping point, I end the chapter. Sometimes an abrupt cut is better than droning on and on in an attempt to find a “stopping point.”
Old habits die hard!
I still keep an eye on word count. I still try to make my chapters at least 2000 words. Recently, I’ve had some that are 1500 words and I get uneasy about that (silly me). But sometimes shorter is sweeter.
I’m not going to lie, I often keep track of the words, and when I reach 2000, I heave a sigh of relief and think, “Okay, now you’re allowed to start thinking about tying things up and bring this chapter to an end.”
There are books out there that delve into story structure and chapter lengths. There are blogs too, lots and lots of them! One of the books I’ve read that discusses this is, “Take Off Your Pants,” which discusses plotting out your “chapter beats.” While I don’t really use this method, it works for some. If you’re someone who wants to expand a chapter into bullets before actually writing it, this might work for you too!
Now, when it comes to planning a chapter, I often have some rough idea about what I want to cover in the chapter. I consider a chapter to be similar to a television episode. A mini version. If I’m really struggling, I will write out a few bullets for what I want to cover.
Maybe you want to know what this looks like? I’ll give you an example for a chapter I might write in my upcoming book Bedelth the Orange.
Chapter 1: Dragon Indecision
·Claire (our MC) is having second thoughts about the upcoming attack to reclaim the fort
—Quick recap of what has happened in previous books
—She doesn’t feel right about poisoning the wild dragons and killing them.
She decides to take matters into her own hands
—Can she avoid killing all of them? Dragons will indeed be extinct otherwise.
—Can she present the Dragons with an alternative?
—Give up the fort or die?
She decides to talk to Talon about this
—An argument ensues
—New relationship tension.
·She finds her unicorn (Tourmaline), taking off into the night to speak to the head of the dragons and offer an ultimatum (chapter ends).
Okay, this might end up being too long a chapter. If so, I might need to split this into two. I’ve got four main bullets here. I’m familiar with my writing style, so I have a good idea about how much word count each bullet might take. Being familiar with your writing style really helps (which comes with experience). I can allow one page per bullet, maybe two. Perhaps I try to do about 1000 words per bullet. If so, this chapter might come in just under 5000 words. That’s about the absolute longest I will allow my chapters to be.
That reminds me! Don’t make your chapters too long (unless you have a good reason to). Readers like a natural stopping point. They could get frustrated if they need to set the book down but a stopping point never presents itself. Shorter is better than longer for increasing suspense. But, as long as a reader is enjoying a story, a longer chapter won’t feel “too long” because they’re having fun!
Do I always use bullets and plan my chapters in writing? 8/10 times, NO. Most of my planning is in my head. If I know I’m about to write a chapter, I spend the hours leading up to my writing session thinking about what I will write, the sequence, and how I might break it into chapters.
For example, if I’m going to do an AM writing sprint, then while I’m on my first-thing-in-the-morning outdoor walk with my pup, I’ll start thinking about what today’s chapter will cover. When I get home and feed the dog, I’ll keep thinking about it. While I prepare my coffee, I’ll keep thinking about it. Then, I’ll sit down with said coffee and start writing. If you need more time, start thinking about your chapter the night before, when you get into bed. Don’t stress if it keeps you awake late into night. That’s good!!!
Finally, I simply trust my intuition. I read a lot of books, perhaps 80-100 books per year (Stephen King says if you’re not reading 70+ books a year, then good luck being a great writer…his words, not mine). This has taught me how to structure chapters from an intuitive perspective. If a chapter feels too short or feels too long, it probably is.
Well, that about covers it! I hope this helps. Feel free to send me your questions. Otherwise, good luck writing!