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Monday, August 8, 2011

Advice on Chapters

It seems like a lot of writers are worried about the lengths of their chapters.  What's considered too long, too short?  What's just-right?

The good thing here is that the answer is short and sweet: there is no ideal chapter length.  As long as all of your chapters are reasonably consistent (i.e. don't have one chapter take fifty pages and another take five), you'll be just fine.

Some books, like Maximum Ride, for example, have very short chapters.  Many of these chapters have two to four pages.  I've heard that Stephen King wrote a chapter that had only four words.  Having short chapters like this makes the story seem like it moves along more quickly, highlighting the feelings of action and suspense.  Some books, on the other hand, could have chapters up to fifty pages in length.  This is fine, too.  It highlights the complexity of the story, and breaks it up into broad pieces that each have something a little different.

The one thing to remember with chapters is that you never want to end in safe place.  When you're reading a book, you want a convenient place to put it down, right?  You're not going to stop reading in the middle of an action sequence or when something important is about to be revealed.  You want to put it down in a place that's comfortable and has little or no tension.

Because of this, you don't want to end your chapter in a "safe" spot.  Don't end with the protagonist contemplating recent events before she turns out the light to go to sleep.  Instead, end with your main character dangling off the edge of a cliff.  If you end every chapter with a moment of suspense, readers won't want to put your book down.

Edit (8/9/11): "Safe" doesn't necessarily mean that the MC is safe from space aliens or whatever.  The character could be physically safe, but maybe the chapter ends with the revelation that the captain of the space aliens is actually her ex-boyfriend, or something.  And action doesn't have to be life-threatening, either.  It could also mean a heated argument, a love scene, etc.  

Just remember: when you write a book, your goal is to write something that your readers can't put down.  If you end each chapter with something exciting, they'll want to stay up half the night saying "one more more chapter..."

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  1. Very true about chapter length. It really depends. I kind of disagree with you about the ending the chapter thing, though. You don't need to end it on a cliffy. It depends what you're writing. For most books, yes, you want a cliffhanger. However, I've read lots of good books that didn't use cliffhangers, like Little Women or Anne of Green Gables. Modern commercial fiction almost always uses cliffhangers, but other styles don't.

    Oh, and this isn't disagreement at all, it's just another point (b/c I've been thinking about this a lot recently.) Ending on a cliffhanger doesn't mean your character has to be staring down the barrel of a gun. In fact, it can be more powerful to have the character get out of the terrifying almost-being-shot situation, and then end the chapter on an emotionally powerful note, like when your MC figures out that the masked shooter was actually her best friend. In this way you're ending the chapter where your character is physically safe, but it still packs more of an emotional punch.

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  3. This is a really good idea! I was going to make a post about this myself on Saturday...Anyways, I was thinking about this the other day as I was working on Night Lies.

    In this story I keep that average chapter length to about 2,500 words or less. But on my most recent chapter, I didn't know if I should stop the chapter at the word count or continue. Because if I wanted to start a new chapter, it meant that I would have to had drastically changed the story plot line again just for the sake of a word count.

    So I went onto Goodreads and asked around (would have gone onto Inkpop, but Inkpop was messing up for me again) and most of the people agreed that the chapter length doesn't matter as long as it is a good chapter. They told me not to worry if some of my chapters are longer than others. So, I took their advice and continued the chapter until it was finished. Sorry about the long comment!


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