Sunday, 21 September 2008


I am known – even if only to myself – for getting my knickers in a twist about the small stuff. When I should be dealing with the big things, the small stuff gets in the way and renders me paralysed.

My knicker-twisting problem this time is ‘chapters.’

Are there any rules?
Are there conventions?
Is either of the above based on genre?
How do we decide what length?
If we’ve decided, must all following chapters be roughly the same length?
What are your theories?


Zinnia Cyclamen said...

My theory is that you don't even need to start thinking about this until you're at least two drafts in. I never even think about chapters until somewhere halfwayish through the second draft. Scenes, maybe, but not chapters. Some authors don't even use chapters (Terry Pratchett, for example). Others may disagree, but it seems to me that you can be as creative with chapters as with anything else about writing (and this applies to non-fiction too - I remember idly browsing a friend's copy of Allan Carr's book about the easy way to stop smoking, which listed in its contents a chapter called something like 'reasons to continue smoking', which made me curious, so I had a look and found the chapter heading on an otherwise blank page). So I'd suggest you forget about chapters for now, carry on writing words, and when you have a book's worth of words you can start thinking about its structure.

Helen said...

I agree with Zinnia. I don't know about any rules for chapters other than reading an interview with someone the other day (he writes thrillers but can't remember his name, argh!) when he said he kept chapters short to make the book fast paced. That is the extent of my knowledge!

Caroline said...

My theory - make your own rules, but be consistent and stick to them.


Debs said...

For the first time, I'm writing a novel without any chapters at all. I want to finish it first and then see where the chapters should start and end.

It feels a little strange doing it this way but I'm glad to see the comments above. It's one less thing to think about as I'm getting the story down.

liz fenwick said...

Right here goes - first three books I worked to set chapters - what I thought worked. When I rewote ACH my chapters changed dramatically but then I was really trying to be sure that each one ended with a 'hook'. The chapter length varied and tended to get shorter as the I got to the end.

This summer at the RNA conferecne Jill Mansell said that she never writes in chapters - she only decides chapters when she has the whole book written and is ready to send it off.

Julie Cohen emphasized the ending chapters with ssomething that is going to make the reader move on - so I think that is easier after you written at least the first draft.

For this new book I am not worrying about chapters - I'm working scene to scene - if that's any help :-)

Keep writing and good luck!

Crystal Jigsaw said...

What a fabulous question and very interesting answers here. Going off your advice, I have decided to take the pressure off myself and just write the first draft then think about chapters.

CJ xx

Calistro said...

For me my chapters tend to be long enough that the reader's had chance to get into it and short enough that it ends on a hook.

That's not very helpful is it?

Um...I guess the chapters in novel 1 are about 2-3,000 words each, but some are shorter. So about 39 chapters in an 83,000 word book. But that's chicklit and I think chicklit needs a faster pace than something more literary.

That said I was recently given a chicklit book and the chapters were RIDICULOUSLY short - like 120 chapters in a 90,000 word book. I can see it was done for pace but it was as though each scene lived in a different chapter and felt far too stop/start stop/start to me (haven't finished it)

I didn't write novel #1 knowing exactly where the chapters fell. Some I did but others I had to go back to and split (maybe). I think that, as Liz said, as long as the end of a chapter makes a reader want to go onto the next one you're onto a winner.

Graeme K Talboys said...

I have always gone by the vague rule that a chapter, like a sentence or a paragraph, should be a complete unit, much like a scene in a film or TV show (except longer). Even though a chapter contributes to a longer story, it needs to be internally consistent; have a definite beginning, middle, and end; and be of a length consistent with the type of story being told. And as with all rules, vague or not, I also believe they are there to be broken.

KayJay said...

I tend to agree with Calistro and Graeme. Chapters should have that sense of being a unit in themselves as well as being part of a whole and there should be something that makes you want to read on at the end. Sometimes you can do this retrospectively, but most of the time I need to write like this from the very beginning.

I am writing Chick Lit and kids' books, so the idea of no chapters terrifies and appalls me! My chaps in my adult novel average about 3,500 words, but this is first draft stuff so I think the final word count will go down. I have a couple of huge chapters of about 6,000 words and a couple around 2,000 and it remains to be seen if they have to be made to be of a more consistent length, although I rather like the fact that they are different as I think it works with the story.

Of course, rules are totally up for the breaking and so often you can just do whatever the hell you like if the material is good enough.

I've been hugely inspired by Joss Whedon (screenwriter and director of things such as Buffy, Serenity etc) and was interested to find out that often when writing an episode of a tv show, he'd start with writing the mini-cliffhangers that came before each ad break! This provided the shape for the whole programme, dictated pace and most importantly kept the viewer hooked. Ok, it's a different medium, but I think if you're writing commercial fiction this is definitely something to bear in mind.

L-Plate Author said...

My point JJ is similar to Caroline's. A chapter is how long it needs to be to make a point, serve a purpose and end with a hook that wants you to read more. I have chapters of fifteen pages long, I have chapters of two pages long. I think both work because they do a job.

I couldn't work without some sort of chapter order but I usually have about fifteen that work their way into about forty when I draft them out as one hook leads to another.

Not very helpful for you JJ, but I think you will know what is right and what isn't. Whether that is first draft or second, third, you will know. x

JJ said...

Thanks so much guys. I can't believe I didn't ask about this before. I scanned all the how to books - no-one tells you (perhaps because there aren't any rules)and I've worried and worried.

BUT, although your answers vary, you've made me realise I can do it either way and if it's not consistant not to worry as it can be sorted etc.

And as long as it's a sensible 'unit', even consistency in length isn't essential.

Thanks so much for your advice.

Captain Black said...

Ooh, this is a good question.

As a reader, I find chapters useful, because you can pick a handy place to stop reading and then carry on the next time. This is a reason why I'm not a big fan of extra-long chapters, because it means I'd be reluctant to put the book down, even though I'm tired.

Some authors use short chapters in order to keep up the pace. James Patterson seems to do this quite a lot.

As for rules, I prefer the term guidelines, since it's easier to break a guideline. One of the books I'm reading at the moment, has its chapters numbered in prime numbers, rather than cardinals. E.g. Chapter 2, 3, 5, 7, 11... Very strange, but then it's quite a strange book.

I never number my chapters, except where the word-processor does it for me. Instead, I give them names. I also keep them in sub documents, so that I can easily rearrange their ordering in the master document. Something I do quite a lot, while I'm fiddling with the plot, and deciding how to weave the story lines together.

Formatting is also subject to rule-breaking, err, umm, I mean guideline-breaking. Some books have strange typeface size effects and left-right placement. And. I'm sure you can guess. Which. One. I'm. Talking. About... :o)

It's a good idea to end chapters with a cliff-hanger or other significant event/question. This will keep the reader wanting more. I've heard that the guidelines for the first chapter are somewhat different. This may be because the first chapter is partly responsible for hooking agents & editors, as well as the target readership.

KAREN said...

I agree that chapters should end with a hook, but lengthwise is subjective. Sometimes you get an instinctive "feel" for where one should end but, as everyone's already said, if that's not the case then leave it until later :o)

KeVin K. said...

I write my scenes individually. (usually I number them, but sometimes I forget)

When everything is done I look to see what scenes fit together to make a chapter and what scenes are chapters all by themselves. I end up with 2-page chapters and 20-page chapters, but they are shaped by the flow of the narrative so it works.

Clare Sudders said...

I try to let it come naturally. When it feels like the chapter is over, I end it and start a new one. I try to end on a nice cadence, so that each chapter has very definite start and end. I also do something I picked up from Robert McKee, which is try and have connections between the end of one and the start of the next. They can be straightforward or oblique, linguistic or locational or conceptual... I just like there to be some connection.

As for length, I have no rules. I just look at what comes out with a detached interest. It happens that my chapters tend to be immensely variable in length. In the same novel there may easily exist a chapter which is three or four times the length of another. Sometimes it's nice to have very-short ones, for punctuation. I think I might worry slightly if they were all exactly the same length. I think variety is good - also helps to ensure you have a variety of pace and tone, which helps keep the novel engaging.

Helen Shearer said...

I tend to write in what I call sections and then arrange into chapters later. I always end on a bit of a cliffhanger and then skip a section before I get back to it, so the cliffhanger at the end of section one is not addressed again until the beginning of section three and by then you're so wrapped up in what happened at the end of section two that section three seems new and refreshing. It frustrates the hell out of the few friends who read my drafts but they all tell me it compels them to keep reading.

wordtryst said...

My chapters also tend to be shaped by the flow of the story. Sometimes a chapter might centre around one scene, sometimes several.

I wouldn't obsess about this, just let the story flow naturally and after the first draft you can nip and tuck and rearrange if you think it's necessary.