What Writers Need to Know About Writing Chapters

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What Writers Need to Know About Writing Chapters

One question nearly every chapter book or novel writer asks at one time or other is “How long should a chapter be?” And most of the time, there is no set answer to that. For some publishers of early chapter books, there may be a template of sorts, and they may have preferences for how long a chapter is. You can see this if you seek out their published books and simply look at how long each chapter is. But this is rare, especially in trade publishing. Usually, it’s your decision on when to break for chapters. It’s a solid rule of thumb that the younger the reader, the shorter the chapter, but beyond that chapter length is up to the writer most of the time. There is a good reason for that, and it has to do with why we have chapters.

What Writers Need to Know About Writing ChaptersNot all novel-length books have chapters. Chapters are something of a double-edged sword. They make a book feel easier to consume because the reading is divided into chapters. Any large task that is divided into a series of smaller tasks tends to feel more manageable. Chapters help convince a reader that tackling this book is doable with their skills and available reading time.

One problem with the bite-sized nature of chapters is they also give readers a stopping point. How many times have you thought: “I’ll just read to the end of this chapter.” By giving a stopping point, you automatically offer the reader a jumping-out point where they will tuck in a bookmark and go do something else, but that requires trusting the reader will eventually come back. And that may not be the case.

This is one reason why so many writers began using cliffhanger chapter endings to ensure the reader is pulled back in and the story isn’t abandoned. Another tool that can keep readers reading is chapter titles. Engaging chapter titles can lure a reader to stay in the book because they want to see what is coming in the chapter titled “Meeting the Monster,” or “Disaster Strikes.”

Quick Read?

When writing for children, you’re constantly balancing the reader’s needs and the desire to keep them reading to the end. Young readers benefit from breaks. And short chapters can help a book feel like a quick read. This is because short chapters, short paragraphs, and short sentences all serve to speed up the pace of a book. They increase the ease of reading. They give the reader’s brain information in smaller, more easily processed bites.

That can be great for a quirky, humorous early chapter book or an edge-of-your-seat chapter book adventure. But what if you’re writing a character-driven literary novel? You may not be striving for that quick-read label. In that situation, chapter length is one tool to slow things down.

Pace is slowed by doing exactly the opposite of those quick-pace tactics. You write longer sentences. You include more sensory details and descriptions. You have longer paragraphs. And you break the book into longer chapters. Some of this longer chapter division will happen quite naturally simply because you’re using longer sentences and longer paragraphs. That can make the content of the chapter denser, and therefore longer. And the denser reading will make for a slower pace.

What Writers Need to Know About Writing Chapters CANVA New Chapter BookA slow pace isn’t bad. It can be a bit of a problem for beginning readers, but for fluent readers, it doesn’t have to lead to abandoning your book. Fluent readers may hope for more description of the spooky house in the woods. They may want to know exactly how the magic staircase in the woods looks and the sounds it makes as you climb the stairs. They may enjoy longer inner monologues from characters. These things can slow the pace and not automatically bore readers. It’s all in how well you do it.

Chapter Breaks

How to divide a book into chapters is a matter of content and purpose. Something important to the plot and characterization needs to happen in every chapter. If it doesn’t, a chapter may simply be filler. When I’m dividing a book into chapters, I think about the journey of the book and think of the chapters as natural stopping points made when an important part of the journey has been accomplished.

When I first moved to New England with my husband from the much more relaxed pace of the South, one of the challenges of the drives to visit relatives was passing through New York. Anytime we had to drive through the city, we made a rest stop once we were out of that crazy high-speed, traffic-dense setting. We needed the break for our nerves. It made sense to stop at that point.

Readers have similar needs. Chapter breaks often come about after you’ve accomplished important parts of the novel. In the first chapter, for instance, you meet the characters, give us a feel for the sort of book this is, and get the plot going. We aren’t simply standing around meeting characters, we are meeting them in a situation that pushes us into the story. Once we’ve accomplished these things, we can stop for a chapter break to give the reader that tiny breathing spot to digest these important story elements.

Special Chapter Breaks

There are other reasons for breaking chapters. If, for example, your book is written in more than one viewpoint (as many romance novels are), chapter breaks can allow you to switch main characters without confusing the reader. Though these breaks still tend to occur based on story elements accomplished, they are also points where you logically need to hand off the story from one character to another. And sometimes this can happen right in the middle of a chapter.

What Writers Need to Know About Writing Chapters CANVA New ChapterFor example, if you’re writing romantic suspense, you may realize you need to show the second half of a scene through a different viewpoint. Normally I wouldn’t divide a chapter in the middle of a scene, but when the fresh viewpoint is going to affect the reader’s understanding of the characters and plot, I’ll do it.

Equally, you may break a chapter because you’re changing the setting, jumping ahead in time, or changing the mood. The key to these kinds of chapter breaks is change. Something is changing abruptly, and chapter breaks make it easier for a reader to adjust to the change.

You’re In Charge

Ultimately, unless you’re working with a book publisher who has very specific templates (some educational publishers function this way), the length of chapters is going to be up to you. But keep in mind the following:

  • Chapters should feel purposeful, not random,
  • Chapter length affects pace,
  • Chapter titles and cliff-hangers can keep readers reading,
  • Chapter breaks are excellent signposts of change.

As with everything you do in your writing, purposeful choice will lead to the best result. So don’t be intimidated by chapters. They can be as much help to you and your storytelling as they are to the reader. Just be purposeful in your decisions and you’ll be fine.

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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

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