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How Long Should A Chapter Be?

February 15, 2012

As K. Piet and I work through our two works in progress (Stalemate and Mae), I find myself considering chapter lengths. A while back, and author emailed me to ask how long her chapters should be, and my response was, “A chapter is as long as it needs to be.” I’m not sure that was much help, but I found myself asking the same question a couple of weeks back.

Stalemate is set up in a very specific way. Each ‘chapter’ is a move and countermove from a chess game. This means that each section—the move and countermove—are about 800 words each, leading to a ‘chapter’ that is between 1,000 and 1,800 words, depending on the moves made. It makes for very short chapters, and we worried it might seem choppy. Now, feedback has told us the chapters aren’t, but it’s still a constant worry in my mind.

On the other hand, Mae (working title only) is more traditional. The chapters average about 2,000+ words each. They flow for us, and each one comes to a comfortable, natural conclusion, and so I don’t question their lengths quite as much. It makes me wonder if it isn’t the length of Stalemate‘s chapters, but the fact that we are fitting them into a very specific pattern instead of letting them flow one into another. It goes against how we’ve been writing thus far, and so it may seem stranger to us than it does to a reader.

Chapter lengths are such arbitrary things. I had one author tell me anything below 5,000 words was a ‘short’ chapter and that they wouldn’t be happy with it. Of course, those I shared that sentiment with thought the same way I did: 5,000 words per chapter would make for a long-ass book, and long-ass chapters. I prefer 2,000-3,000 words per chapter, as anything longer can feel like I’m not making any progress as a reader. I view chapters as progression marks, as places I can stop, set aside the book, and easily come back to. Having long chapters only makes it feel like a chore to read (and I tend to think the author might be a little pretentious and wordy, thus making me less likely to buy another of their books).

Eh, I dunno. Chapters serve purposes. Short chapters tend to make me feel like the book is tight and fast-paced (when well-written, mind you). Long chapters tend to make me feel like the book is tedious and overthinking itself. It’s that middle ground I like, that place of good pacing, wonderful dialogue, excellent language choice, and a sense of accomplishment throughout the reading. That’s what I want as a reader, though as an author… that sweet spot is hard as hell to hit, and I think—not for the first time—that I’m being too hard on myself as an author and on the books I read as a reader.

In the end, yes, my original advice to that author is the right answer: Chapters will be as long or as short as chapters need to be, and I need to stop overthinking the whole thing. XD

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2012 10:08 am

    What I was told, and I think it was Michael A. Stackpole who said it in one of his podcasts, was that chapters need to be short enough to be read in one go.
    I think he also mentioned the 2500, but I’m not sure, it’s been a couple of years since I listened to his podcasts.

    I’m very much a scene by scene writer, and my scene length may vary (though my scenes are longer than they were a couple of years back), which influences how long my chapters are. I usually try to keep chapters around 2500-3000 words, some may be over 3000, some may be under 2500, but I try to keep it as close as possible. I set myself this goal, because I realised that if I didn’t give myself those numbers, my chapters would vary between 2000 and over 5000 words, making the story a very uneven read, something that really didn’t sit well with me.

    I agree that chapters will be as long as they need to be, and chapter length is very personal.
    That said, my advise would be to at least give yourself a limit, bottom and top, so you know what to aim for.

  2. February 15, 2012 5:57 pm

    Stalemate looks terribly exciting, esp with the wonderful cover, but even more so now!
    thanks for the behind the scenes info!

  3. February 19, 2012 3:33 pm

    Blaine — I agree with that. I like sitting down and reading one chapter within the time I have. I can read pretty quickly, though. I can read a 300 page book I’m really into in about two to three hours, depending on distractions. But, when I want to take my time with a book? I want to get through a chapter or two in one evening’s time. A 5,000 word chapter is just crazy! XD

    But, I tend to let scenes go how they will. The chapters in Mae are averaging about 2,500 words each (some short or longer than others). I think it’s pacing itself well. I tend to go with a chapter either being one substantial scene or a series of smaller scenes all immediately following each other in the timeline of the story, all interconnected.

    With Stalemate, though… I dunno. It’s an experiment. XD We’ll see how it goes!

    Melanie — I’m very excited about Stalemate, but Mae is consuming my thoughts at the moment. I’m 1/4 of the way through writing Mae, and I think we could have it finished by the end of March. I’m hoping so, anyway! Spending today sussing out the last of the outline details before we dive back in to writing this week. 😀

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