How long should your chapters be?
Nearly every beginning writer asks this question, but the answer isn’t easy. There isn’t any set standard in the industry for chapter length. Some chapters are short, some chapters are long. You need to write chapter lengths that work for you and your readers. How long is that? Just long enough.
Every chapter in a novel demonstrates what we call a ‘value change.’ All that means is that something (of value to the plot) changes in a chapter. When it starts, your hero is about to raid the enemy prison camp, when it ends, he’s been captured. In every chapter, something of importance to the plot has to change. But… how long should that take?
Keep it ‘short’
I said that there is no industry standard, and that is true. But there are readers with short attention spans. You need to make sure that you give your readers a break fairly frequently, and usually that means a chapter break.
But not always.
When I write multiple POV third person fiction, I usually put more than one scene (from more than one Point of View) into a single chapter. Naturally, that makes my chapters longer. In this case, I keep my chapters ‘shorter’ by breaking them up into scenes. Sure, I might have three scenes in the chapter, but every scene (every POV switch) has “—“ in between it. When readers encounter a scene break like that, they know that they are in a safe place if they want to put the book down.
Whether you use chapter or scene breaks, be sure that you give them chances to take a breath.
So, how short is short? The average adult human reads at about 300 words per minute, give or take. (Just pulled that stat off the internet so… yeah.) Assuming that value is accurate (of course it is, it came of the internet) I would recommend shooting for breaks every 1,000 words or so. That’s just over three minutes of reading between each break, and that’s not much at all.
(Of course, you don’t want your reader setting down your book every 1,000 words… but keeping that from happening is pretty much what this entire blog is about so I won’t touch on it here. 😉 )
Keep it consistent
The 1,000 word break thing is an average. Sometimes your scenes will be shorter. Sometimes longer. That’s fine.
But don’t get wacked out, you don’t want to surprise your reader. As they read, they’ll get used to the rhythm of your book. They’ll know that if they sit down to read a chapter, they’ll be reading for three minutes, or fifteen minutes, or whatever. If they suddenly have to read for an hour to finish a chapter, they’ll have to set your book down in the middle of someone.
And no one likes to do that.
Don’t surprise your reader with a 2,500 word scene, or a 6,000 word chapter.
A little variance from your norm will keep the pace of your novel from getting monotonous. A lot of variance will wreck it completely.
Know your genre
Finally, literary fiction chapters are (generally) longer than action/thriller chapters. Know how you want your book to read. Do you want it to be artistic or exhilarating? Art takes time. Exhilaration takes action.
What if my chapter is too long?
The answer is pretty simple: cut it down to size.
You might need to split it into two chapters. You might need to go through it look for things that need to go. Here are some great questions to help you determine if a scene (or part of a scene) should stay:
Does it move the plot along? No? Trash it.
Does it create emotion? No? Trash it.
Does it develop character (or cause/exhibit character change?) No? That’s right. Trash it.
Cutting out your own writing can be painful, but you don’t want to leave a bunch of unnecessary mumbo-jumbo in your novel or readers will put it down and not pick it up again.
In the end, the question of chapter lengths is about your reader’s attention span, and the pacing of your writing. Be flexible, but be consistent. One great way to judge a scene is to go through and edit it. Does it drive you mad with boredom before you get to the end? Then it’s too long.