Chapter length

Monday, December 1, 2008
How was your Thanksgiving? Mine was great. My husband makes a mean turkey. I was in charge of the celery and cheese whiz . . . Do you think they're trying to tell me something?

I did end up going to the Black Friday sales at 4:30 am. Holy early! We saved a ton of money. Over $250 at Staples alone, plus I won a $100 gift cert at Shoe Carnival! Waa*freakin'*hoo! (Like all women everywhere, I love shoes. You can never have enough.)

Fate threw a case of stomach flu in the midst, but I shook it off.

And, back to business. Let's talk about chapter length. I've seen lots of different styles. From 20 + pages, to one word.

Your chapter length varies slightly by genre. Literary fiction can go lots longer than YA. I write YA, and I feel that around 10 pages, plus or minus 2-3, is about perfect. I like my chapters to vary a bit--keeps the book interesting. Just imagine a teenager picking up a wheel block book, flipping through tightly packed words, enormous paragraphs, and 4 chapters in the entire book.

Some people will say that teenagers aren't patient enough to read that much. I'm going to digress and say that teenagers aren't patient enough to put up with the drivel. THEY WANT THE STORY, DANGIT! I'm the same way. I hate stories that go on and on and on and on and on and . . . do you get the point?

Orson Scott Card has said that he starts off with smaller chapters and gradually increases the length as the reader becomes inebriated with the story (I'm paraphrasing here. I couldn't help it. Inebriated was just such a great word!).

So how do you know when to make a chapter break? This is one of the artsy parts of writing. You start developing a feel for it as you continue. The more you write, the more your writing fits into chapters. Plotting has a lot to do with this. Each chapter should contain a mini plot, one piece of the larger picture. A writing buddy of mine, Jeff Savage, gave me an awesome tip a few years ago: Enter that chapter late and leave it early.

That one statement stuck with me. Think how powerful that is! And how versatile! How do you know where to start your book?

Start late!

The example Jeff gave was a chapter that ended with his character hitting someone with a car on a dark night. He started the next chapter with the character looking down at the lifeless body. Can you see how powerful that is? He could have written about the man wrenching the car door open, his thudding footfalls as he ran up the embankment. But he skipped all of that. He began and ended his chapter with the most powerful parts.

I could go on and on. I love getting my hands dirt with writing. But this post is getting plenty long. If you have any tips that work for you, post them on comments. If they strike a light bulb for me, I'll include them in the main post.



  1. Anonymous said...:

    Start late and end early is indeed good advice (in most cases).

    I tended to do that during the entire middle-third of my first novel, and am sticking to that blueprint with the second book of the series.

    However, I didn't personally find that the method worked that well for me in the earlier chapters of the books. Only after things have been established did it seem to fit and work incredibly well.

    Anyway, it's nice to meet another fellow writer who doesn't take the "small things" for granted and is always looking for ways to improve. The fact that you care enough to investigate such things has earned my respect more than you can possibly know.

    Keep Writing!

  1. Wow, thanks.
    Now, if only I could get a publisher to respect me that much . . .

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