Sunday, 16 March 2014

Chapter length...

One of the unique problems in writing a novel is deciding on chapter layout.

It's one of those defining elements of writing that really doesn't have any rules. Chapters can be as long or short as the author wants. But how do you decide what works best?

If you look at my monthly word count updates, you'll see I finished the draft of 'Grey Sister' with 23 chapters (plus a prologue). Having just finished the read through of the book, I've now juggled around with the chapter lengths, so that now I have 34!

That's a huge difference, especially as I haven't touched the word count at all. I ended up splitting a lot of the chapters into two because I felt they were just too long. So, how did there end up being such a big change needed?

While I was writing, I tended to form chapters around what I considered to be one major event, trying to fit one important plot point into every chapter. Reading through, I realised I have often ended up with two or three events in one chapter (or else the single event had stretched itself into such a large word count that I decided it needed to take up multiple chapters on its own). Part of the problem also comes from my inexplicable conviction that my writing is secretly very short. Even with a word count of well over a hundred thousand, I've struggled to convince myself that 'Grey Sister' was long enough. Perhaps that's why I ended up trying to cram so much into every chapter.

So, how long should a chapter actually be?

From Stephenie Myers single word chapters in 'New Moon', to Terry Pratchett's tendency to avoid chapters all together, the choices for chapter lengths is endless.

For the most part, chapters are determined by the story itself, focusing on events in the plot that round nicely into sections. Or, you can ignore the plot entirely and place chapter markers at indeterminate points to create tension or emphasise the narrative or even just to unsettle the reader.

On average, just as novels tend to be between 85-90,000 words, chapters tend to settle around the 2000-3000 word mark. Many of my chapters were already this length, but a lot were much longer. So I've used the 2/3000 standard as a starting point and found a nice fluidity in it. That being said, there's plenty of variation and a few chapters still stretch into the 5000 region. But I feel happier with having a higher number of chapters, not only because it convinces me that my book is definitely not short, but also because I think it gives the story a better flow.

Where do you stand on chapter length? Do you like them short and snappy, or long and lovely?

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