Wednesday 16 February 2022

What is a chapter?

 Book, Table, Read, Knowledge, Wisdom

There was a recently a discussion in one of my Facebook groups about chapters; what should be their ideal length and how do you form them.  


I maintain that a chapter needs to be as long as it needs to be and this will vary according to writer and text. There is a perception that in a given work all chapters should be of a similar length. Again, though, if one chapter needs to be much shorter or longer than the others in a given work so be it.

As a reader, I favour short chapters. I’m currently reading Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club where the chapters are delightfully short. This keeps the pace going. The latest chapter I’ve read is unusually long: Chapter 100, eight and half pages. The average length is two pages. This longer chapter contains an important and dramatic plot point.

I’ve reviewed a series of YA fantasy books. Each volume would make a good doorstop. But you keep on reading because the chapters are short. The fantasy world impinges on the normal world and alternate chapters take you into these two realities. This makes the book very readable

My own chapters tend to be between 1500 and 2500 words i.e. seven to ten pages long.

Chapter shape

My theory is that each chapter should contain a plot point, or maybe several if there are sub plots as well but only one point for each plot.

There should also be an arc within each chapter, similar to a story arc.

However, often at the end instead of a resolution, there is a cliff hanger. I’ve been told recently that I do this well and I actually find it quite easy to do. That keeps the reader reading.

It is fine as well to have scene breaks within the chapter. A scene break occurs when you move to another time or place. It can be a change of point of view though this can be disconcerting for the reader if it happens mid chapter.  

How I go about it

Indeed, my chapters are my plot points and I use a brief description of the plot point in the chapter heading in my working document. These are deleted in the final edit.

For reach chapter I plan my arc:

Opening scene

Three or so complexities

A dramatic, point of no return, scene

Some sort of response to the new threat

Cliff hanger

These constitute the scenes within each chapter. For each scene, I create about three mini plot points.

I am a planner and I find that going into this amount of detail in the plans makes the writing easy. However, I still find as I write new turns and twists pop into the action.

Overall length and number of chapters

I write historical fiction for women and science fiction for young adults.  I find in both cases that my novels are averaging 80,000 words and thirty-two chapters.                      

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