Chapter length is important to structure

It may seem trivial, but how long to make the chapters in a novel is a detail worth paying attention to. But this item also bears some explanation.

Chapters are of approximately similar lengths.

Generally speaking, you want your chapters to be consistent in their length, as jerking back and forth between long chapters and short ones can be distracting. You don’t want to throw the reader out of the story with thoughts like this chapter is going on forever or wow, that was a short chapter.

novel chapter length
Photo © Leks_Laputin • iStockphoto

That said, chapter length, like sentence length, can be varied to heighten tension. A short chapter, perhaps in the villain’s point of view, that gives a glimpse of something far away that’s unknown to the protagonist, can be very effective. When you vary chapter length, just make sure you’re doing it deliberately, and not carelessly.

In the same way that paragraphs encapsulate ideas, chapters ideally will encapsulate story modules. Good places for chapter breaks are when the setting or POV shifts, or if there’s a jump in time. Ideally the scenes in a chapter will work together to resolve a plot point or introduce a complication.

One of my personal pet peeves is when a chapter break is placed smack in the middle of a scene for no reason. You turn the page only to remain right where you left off. I’m not sure why writers do this, but I don’t recommend it. The blank space at the end of one chapter, the turning of the page, and the header at the top of the next chapter work together to create a break in the flow of the narrative. When you lead the reader into that break only to pick up right where you left off runs the risk of throwing them out of the story, wondering why did she do that? Anything that gets the reader thinking about pagination instead of story is to be avoided.

Far better is the chapter that ends at a moment of tension. The reader turns the page to find out what happens next…and you shift the story to another character’s POV in another place. The reader will think Argh! How can she keep me waiting? And then he’ll keep reading to find out what’s next.

It’s great if every scene can end on a point of tension, but not all tension points will be the same intensity, and that’s appropriate. You can’t spend the whole novel with the tension cranked up to eleven. But those high-tension points are the best places for a chapter break.

Next: The mechanics of chapterization

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  2. […] “It may seem trivial, but how long to make the chapters in a novel is a detail worth paying attention…” […]

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