Chapters: are they too big? or too short?

It’s quite common when writing a novel to realize that your chapters have very different sizes. You may wonder: is this okay? Is there some standard length for a chapter? Not at all.

Chapters are actually not as important as they might seem in the finished book. They are huge bags where you put some scenes, so the reader can give himself small goals while reading your book. The scenes are the important ones, the basis of everything.

They are part of the planning

I didn’t know that in my first novel. I sat down and wrote, whatever came to my mind. Beautiful words, disorganized scenes, a crappy publisher, and we had a novel. Zero planning. Disappointing final work.

I worked a lot after that. I knew I could do better, and my second novel was planned to exhaustion. To organize the chapters, I tried to fit in each of them the same number of scenes. I also tried that all the scenes had a similar number of words. It didn’t work that well. I mean, the result was quite better than the first one, but it takes out some of the spontaneity I need when I’m writing. That made some scenes sound a bit artificial.

Like me, you need to find your own way. You can go mathematically, planning a book with x chapters, with y scenes in each one, or try to write more freely. Any place between these two extremes is good. Whatever you choose is good if it works for you and your story. The length of a chapter isn’t as important as the quality of your scenes.

As a reader, however, I find a very long chapter tiring. Yet, there are exceptions. Sometimes, you can read 100 pages in a row without realizing it. It happens when the story was too exciting and the writing so good, you just couldn’t stop.

When to end the chapter?

Choosing the right moment to end the chapter can be tricky. You can make your job easier by dividing it into scenes. I like to end it in moments of suspense and curiosity. They help to make the reader turn the page and (hopefully) read one more chapter.

Generally, you want to end with a big happening that leads your reader to ask, “what is he going to do?”. It can be something like a brief description of a sound or smell the character noticed. Something interesting enough to make the reader wonder what was that. Sometimes, it’s enough to describe what the character is feeling. For example, “He looked at the open door and felt out of breath.” without explaining the motive.

All of those could be great ways of ending a chapter. They lead people to keep reading to know what was happening.

Sometimes, the chapter ends with a mystery that has been in the story for too long. Perhaps an answer your reader was seeking since the beginning. That can work too, depending on the story.

Imagine that you are the reader. You finally got that answer you’re searching for since chapter 1. You look at the book, and there is still half a book to read. What would you think of it? Could you trust this answer to be the truth? Would you keep reading?

Keep it interesting

I don’t know a single writer that isn’t an avid reader as well. You know, as a reader, what keeps you going and what makes a book boring. Look at your story. Would you read it? If you’re not sure now, put your story aside and read it later, tomorrow or next week. This will give you some emotional distance, allowing you to be less partial about it.

A boring book doesn’t sell. People have way too many ways to distract themselves rather than invest their time in something that is not entertaining enough – assuming you’re writing fiction. If it’s not the case and you’re writing non-fiction, keep in mind that no one likes to feel bored anyway. My advice is for you to study your audience carefully.

The good thing about writing is that there are no rigid rules, only guidelines and lots of creativity.