Chapter Length, Does it Matter?
I ask myself this often. How long should a chapter be? Is there an optimal chapter length? The true answer is that there is no answer. The truth is realized when you understand… there is no spoon. (Random Matrix references are Gold).
Honestly though, when I am writing I will notice that some chapters are eight to ten pages and others are in the 30’s. How can this be fair? It really isn’t. There is no formula for writing. There are no rules that govern things of this tick-tacky nature. Still, a quandary exists to produce a balanced and fair book.
I first noticed this when I switched from screenplays to novels. Scripts are easy. You make a scene, people do and say things in the scene, the scene ends. Repeat until the movie is over. In a novel, however, it is different. You have so much going on in a single chapter that they can seemingly go on forever.
Chapter Length Doesn’t Even Need Chapters.
I know some authors who don’t even write in chapters. I stare at them quizzically for hours. My writings depend on many different levels and forms of organization. I have lists for my lists, even if they are only maintained in my head. How can you not write in chapters? I can’t.
When I first started writing Journal: Decoded, I sat down and plotted each chapter out in a syllabus style outline. I went so far as to write a page count goal for each chapter, and I basically stuck to it. I have since learned that this is not what is needed. For my very first novel though, it seemed to help. I had a goal and I aimed for it.
Sometimes I fell short other times I exceeded. It was helpful though. I found out later with my second and third novels that it didn’t help as much as it appeared to at first.
Don’t Try Too Hard
The problem with setting goals of this nature is that you try too hard and concentrate on the wrong things. I ended up having to do more edits, more drafts and more rewrites to Journal: Decoded than I wanted to, or needed too.
Trying to reach a certain number of pages for a specific chapter made the words less meaningful and more exacerbated. With my second and third novels, I aimed more for a total word count and let the chapters fall where they fell. I didn’t care. This has worked out far better for me than I ever thought possible.
Now, the words flow easily, and I can concentrate on my other weaknesses as a writer (verb tense, anyone?) So then, how long should a chapter actually be?
Easy… long enough to complete the train of thought and actions that that chapter is written for. Is it the main chapter, where the main plotline is being explored further? It’s going to be a bit longer. Is it a chapter dealing with some back story or a side plot? It’s going to be shorter.
There is no guide to follow. Just like with paragraphs, when you change to tone, subject, or location of the chapter’s direction, start a new chapter. Otherwise… keep going and save that heading for another page.