A Look at Chapters

As requested, this week’s post is going to be about chapters.

What are chapters for and how do you go about creating them?

So chapters aren’t technically required. There are a few novels that go without them, but they are the exception. Almost all novels and most novellas will use chapters of some kind.

What are Chapters for Anyway?

As a Reader

A chapter is a breaking point, a moment to pause and step away from the book.

I don’t know about you, but finishing a book chapter always gives me a feeling of accomplishment. The reverse, however, is also true. If I have to stop reading in the middle of a chapter I’m usually a little annoyed. Sometimes I’m annoyed at the interruption, but I can just as easily be frustrated with the book for making hard for me to reach a good stopping point. Perhaps this is exaggerated for me, as I am not the world’s fastest reader, but I’m usually nonplused by the idea of 30+ page chapters. Chapters this long mean I have to consciously carve out a large dedicated reading time in order to not feel disoriented every time I pick up the book.

As a Writer

A chapter is a key tool for pacing your novel.

You can use them to group scenes, cleanly change point of view, skip long gaps of time. You can also use them to manipulate how your readers read. Your chapter decisions can keep your reader up late at night, or give them a sense of peace, reflection, and accomplishment. Or you can easily annoy them by not meeting their expectations.

So how do you make the right choice about how to structure your chapters? I think this comes down to an understanding of your audience, their preferences, and what you want their reading experience to be.

You can influence the reader experience by making conscious decisions around chapter length, content, and how your chapters resolve.

Chapter Length

So let’s answer a basic question first, how long should the chapters be?

Several resources suggest that a chapter be roughly one scene of 2,000 words. This keeps your chapters short, fast and addictive. But if you take a look at some of the books you’ve read lately, you’ll probably see that it varies pretty heavily from genre to genre and even author to author.

In my own reading, I’ve seen books with short chapters, around 5 to 7 pages sometimes even as short as 3. Then there are medium length chapters of 10-20 pages. Then there are the 30, 40 or even 50-page chapters, on the long end. Medium length chapters seem to be the most common. But I see these short chapters more in children’s fiction and thrillers, and the really long chapters in older, literary, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy books.

You might notice I’m talking pages here and not word count. Pages are a good measure for a reader because they are the units with which you experience a book.

Pages are not a great unit from a writer’s perspective because not all pages are created equal. How many pages a chapter ends up being is a function of word count and formatting. The font, font-size, margins, and line spacing all add up here to determine the number of words per page.

I’ve created a small table below to show an example of what I mean.

Pages in a Chapter

This is going to get a bit number oriented. If that’s not your thing, skip ahead to the next section.

What’s the standard for words per page(wpp)? There seems to be a lot of disagreement about that. Check out this Quora post for a few different answers to the question:
https://www.quora.com/Roughly-how-many-pages-would-50-000-words-produce-in-a-standard-paperback-novel-format


I would say that for middle grade through adult books it is somewhere within the range of 220-400. The lower numbers of words per page are more common for middle grade, young adult, and, at least according to one source, for mass-market paperbacks. 350-400 wpp would be a denser trade paperback, but you are likely to see a lot of variation here as well.

For my own research, I have hand counted the words per page on a couple of middle-grade titles and came somewhere between the 220-250 range.

As you can see, formatting can make a long book seem shorter, or a short book appear heftier. You can see from the table that a 10-page chapter at 400 wpp is 1,800 words longer than a 10-page chapter at 220 wpp. Or conversely, a 10-page chapter at 220 wpp is only 5.5 pages at 400 wpp.

It’s worth noting that the density of words will vary even within a book as you move from sparser dialogue sections to wordier descriptive passages. If you decided to carve up your own book into chapters based strictly on word count, you would still have a variable page count due to the type of writing contained in that chapter.

So What Do You Do?

With the understanding that there will always be some variability, pick an ideal standard chapter length. You don’t want to jump from a 50 to a 5-page chapter unless you have very specific structural reasons for doing so or your reader is going to think you’ve lost it.

But that still doesn’t tell you how to pick a good length.

I think that how you pick your standard word count should depend on your reader.

Audience

So with the understanding that your chapters are meant as a breather for your reader, consider who your reader is, how they read, what they expect, and their particular tastes. What sort of reading experience do you want them to have? How do you anticipate they will read your books?
Let’s look at some examples

Are you writing with the intention of adults to read aloud to children?

In this scenario, they are likely to read one or two chapters aloud at a time.

Consider how long they are likely to spend reading and try to make your chapters no longer than that.

If your chapters are too long for a nightly 30-minute reading session, understand that they might not be able to get through the chapter in one session, which will feel unsatisfying to the listener and reader. If you are dead set on having long read-aloud chapters consider providing fast-paced section breaks within a chapter to offer earlier resolution points.

Are you writing for kid’s to read to themselves?

You probably want to make these chapters even shorter than the ones above. Make it easy for them to make progress through your book and continue to be excited about the story and characters. This doesn’t mean that they won’t read for long periods of time. You are simply rewarding them with a sense of completion more frequently which I think can heighten the reading experience.

Does your audience like a break-neck page-turner?

Are you writing a Thriller or action-oriented YA? Then you probably want short, punchy chapters that leave the reader wanting more. Don’t provide too much resolution or your reader will quickly become bored.

They are reading this type of book for adrenaline, that ‘I-literally-can’t-stop-reading-this’ experience. If that’s what your reader expects, then don’t give them long drawn out chapters with lots of time to reflect or they may put your book down to never return.

Do they like slower pieces that give them time to process the character journey and decisions?

Are you writing literary fiction? Are you exploring an idea or important emotional moment?

Not everyone loves the up-all-night reading experience. If you’re writing super short cliff-hanger chapters for these readers, you are likely tick them off.

There is more space to spread out here, so take advantage of it. The readers want to spend time immersed in your world and character, so plan your chapters accordingly.

Is your audience reading you to learn about a topic?

This is the nonfiction and narrative nonfiction crew.

Your reader is likely expecting to learn something concrete in each and every chapter.

Subject area and the information conveyed take precedence here over length. A lot of nonfiction seems to rely heavily on headings and subheadings (like this blog post) to break the information down into digestible pieces while still grouping thematic elements under the same chapter.

Is your audience reading your book to figure out a puzzle?

Mysteries anyone?

Let each chapter accomplish something, a suspect, a clue, a dead end. When you do this the reader will feel a sense of momentum. With each chapter, the reader and the character are one step closer to the answers they were promised at the start of the book. The chapters can be reflective or fast paced as long as they accomplish something.

Chapter Endings

Okay so you know who your audience is and their general expectation for chapter length and content. Can you just carve up a story accordingly?
Not exactly.

For one, you want them to have some relation to the scenes you’ve written. You may also have some structural constraints such as changing point of view or a long lapse of story time that may impose chapter breaks.

More important are the choices you make around chapter endings. The type of chapter ending you choose will either propel a reader forward or allow them to slow down and reflect. If you do it right, you can make chapter endings one of the crucial levers of tension and release throughout your story.

Let’s look at three different kinds of chapter endings to see what I mean.

Resolved

Sometimes a chapter ends with a sense of things resolved.

This is usually the feeling you get when a chapter ends with the resolution to the problem that was set at its start. This has the effect of giving the reader a resting point. Chapters that end this way are more likely to be places where the reader will actually put down the book. This is needed in longer books, but it’s usually not a great idea to rely too heavily on resolution endings because the book will feel slow and even disconnected without a natural escalating flow between chapters.

The Writing Excuses crew suggests that act or part breaks are a good place for this sort of resolution. These larger transitions in your work will often coincide with a large amount of time passing, a changed location, or a situation so altered that a time in in the character’s life has effectively ended (I’m thinking things like the end of innocence, childhood, or a death). When you have such a momentous shift, it’s nice to give the reader a bit of a breather.

Unresolved

Not all chapters end this way though. Some chapters make it almost impossible not to immediately start reading the next one.

How do you do this? By not answering the problem set out at the chapter’s start, and actively teasing the reader about what the answer might be. This technique is likely to the keep the reader reading, however you have to be careful not to string out answers too long. What you are doing here is actually ending a chapter before the scene has technically ended.

Let’s look at this in more detail.

I’ve talked about the structure of scenes before with the elements of:

  1. Inciting incident – scenario
  2. Progressive complications – things get worse or better
  3. Turning Point – character can’t continue how they have been up to this point
  4. Crisis – The decision they must make
  5. Climax – Making the decision
  6. Resolution – result of that decision

Ending a chapter at the end of the scene directly after its resolution leads to the resolved type of chapter ending.

You could see that if you ended the chapter after the crisis you would have readers clambering to find out what decision the character was going to make. You could alternatively end the chapter at the climax, where the character knows what decision they’re making, but you have no idea whether it will work.

What happens to the rest of the scene when end a chapter mid-scene like this? Sometimes the remaining elements of the scene get their own chapters, sometimes they are elided entirely, and other times they share chapter space with the next scene or two.

Resolution and New Question

Sometimes you want the best of both worlds. You want to answer the question you posed at the start of the chapter, but you don’t want the reader to put down the book just yet.

You can do this by slicing off the beginning section of the next scene and sticking it at the end of your chapter. This hints at what is coming next and hopefully gives a reason to either keep reading or come back to the book soon. If you remember back to the parentheses model of storytelling this would be the equivalent of closing a parenthesis and opening a new one all within the span of a chapter.

KM Weiland has a great reference of ways to build tension into your chapter breaks in her blog post “10 Killer Chapter Breaks”.
https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/11-killer-chapter/

Book Length

As a last note on chapters, it’s worth mentioning book length. Though not as important of a consideration, your overall book-length should affect both your chapter length and chapter-endings.

If you write a 150-page book your chapters probably shouldn’t be 50 pages. Conversely, you don’t often see 1,000-page books with 3-page chapters.

If your book is on the shorter side it is possible that a rabid reader could get through it in a night. A short book combined with short tension filled chapters, may well create an up-all-night reading experience.

However, if your book is long, consider that even though you may want them to read it in one night, it may not be physically possible. Brandon Sanderson, who is famous for writing epically long books, purposefully creates chapter breaks as resting places for his readers so that they can get up and feed themselves in between reading sessions.

There are two really excellent Writing Excuses episodes about chapters and pacing that I recommend checking out if you want to learn more about the topic.

12-15: Pacing with Chapters
http://www.writingexcuses.com/2017/04/09/12-15-pacing-with-chapters/
10-32 How do I control the speed of the story
http://www.writingexcuses.com/2015/08/09/writing-excuses-10-32-how-do-i-control-the-speed-of-the-story/

What are your preferences for chapters as a reader? Do you love or hate cliff-hangers? Do you like longer or shorter chapters?

Any writers out there with different chapter strategies?

Let me know in the comments. I always love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading!

Kerelyn


Feature Photo by Annelies Geneyn on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “A Look at Chapters

  1. harrysmith4444 says:

    With some content of a specific length, how much control does an author have over how many words per page end up in the final product?

    • Depends on how you publish. If you are going to publish independently, then you have complete control over the wpp for your print edition. I believe you also have quite a bit of control over the e-book, but of course the zoom feature on the kindle would change this. If you are traditionally published I don’t believe you have much if any say in the formatting process. From what i’ve read these are part marketing, part design decisions.

  2. harrysmith4444 says:

    Having your scenes or chapters following the 6 structural elements makes it possible to apply the different kinds of endings you describe. This systematic approach seems really promising. Is there a fear that the whole process becomes too mechanical?

  3. I think a lot of writers fear structure and things becoming too cookie cutter. It’s certainly possible to follow structural guidelines and produce something very unoriginal. I think the challenge is learning about these elements and finding creative ways to implement them. Then if you do break some of the “rules” you are doing it intentionally to evoke a particular effect.
    That’s my approach at this stage in my writing career, but perhaps that will change with time.

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