Questionable: How Long is a Chapter?

CateM wrote:
Jenny, what’s (roughly) the word-count for one of your chapters? I know chapter lengths are arbitrary/ not inherently tied to story structure. But I’m trying to figure out pacing stuff for the new thing I’m working on, and I like how yours feel long enough to feel substantial/like I’m settling in for a good story, while also being short enough that it’s comfortable to read them in one sitting.

I don’t write in chapters, I write in acts and break the acts into parts/scene sequences, and my chapters come from there, usually in the final draft.

But that’s no help, so let me get specific.

An act is a chunk of story that ends in a big turning point, turning the story into a new story. The acts in my books get shorter as the progress, roughly 33,000/28,000/24,000/15,000 words each, but that’s VERY roughly, they can vary by two or three thousand words each, so my books end up 100,000 to 110,000 words long.

The reason I want the acts getting shorter is that the reader will subconsciously notice the turning points are coming close together and feel the pace picking up. For the same reason, at the very end of writing the book, as I divide the acts into chapters for the last drafts, I want the chapters getting shorter, so that again subconsciously, the reader feels the pace picking up.

I can’t always make that work, but generally I can come pretty close.

So look at Act One of Nita.

So the chapter lengths in Act One are:

5102 words: Meet the protagonists
5746 words: Start the relationships between the protagonist and among the five members of the future team.
5320 words: The protagonists in conflict where they live
3803 words: Breakfast, the closest thing this book gets to a first date.
2729 words: Dealing with authority figures, being authority figures.
5002 words: Investigations.
3347 words: Complications.
2659 words: Minion hunt.
1162 words: Partners.

Please note, I don’t do this word count stuff or separate into chapters until the very end because chapter breaks have no narrative meaning to me. Acts and scene sequences have narrative meaning so that’s what I write in. But eventually I have to put it into chapters, and that were I start looking at scene sequences, high points to break on, and word counts. The one thing the word counts give me is my pacing: that second chapter 5746 words could use trimmed by a couple hundred (about a page). but that mess in the investigations chapter that runs 5000 words? That’s way too late in the first act to have that kind of length which is why the rewrite is coming in shorter.

When I start Act Two, I’ll bounce up to about 4000 words again because I’m basically introducing a new story, but I’ll keep decreasing. The middle of the book, the chapters will run between 4000 and 2500 words, decreasing sharply at the turning points, and then the last act will have chapters of about 1000 to 2000 words, give or take. The read determinant of word count is in the content of the scene; I break on the point of tension or highest interest in what comes next.

All of which is to say, my chapter word counts are all over the place because I find chapter breaks annoying and unnecessary and I’m exasperated that I have to put them in, but if I’m gonna, I’m going to use them for pacing and expectation.

I know, that’s no help, but it’s complicated. Argh.

8 thoughts on “Questionable: How Long is a Chapter?

  1. Most of Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld stories have no chapter breaks. For those of us, yawning but trying to go on, telling yourself “I’ll just finish this chapter” was No Help. In fact, his books made me buy my first bookmark*, because I didn’t want to dog-ear the book.

    For me, chapter breaks are where there is some sort of pause, or climax, in the story. Picture, instead, putting a Chapter break every 5,000 words, adjusted for the end of a sentence. Chaos!

    * My first bookmark that wasn’t a dollar bill, or torn from a notepad, or a toothpick or other convenient object. It was laminated and a work of art, and said “Ex Libris” on the back. Kindle and Mobipocket Reader have electronic ways to bookmark, so I don’t have a physical one, just now.

    1. It is however possible to get a Susan physical bookmark from the authorized Pratchett site should you want one (a couple of stockings will get those ….)

  2. Good rundown. Can relate to your process. Mine is very similar and I only do my chapter breaks once I’m done the whole book. Even my early readers get the “nearly final” draft without chapters, lol:)

  3. I like books that alternate points of view between main characters or between multiple settings. If I’m trying to keep track of what’s going on with Person X, but don’t want to lose track of Person Y, it’s helpful to shift from a scene primarily involving X, or told from X’s viewpoint, to one that is Y-centric, and then vice versa. Helps me keep things straight in my head, and offers a place to put the book down so I can sleep.

    Likewise, if action is set up in one country, or town, or house or whatever, but it’s going to be influenced by what’s going on in another, I prefer to have visible chunks in one place with some sort of climactic end point, and then a new start point for the part of the story that’s taking part in another.

    Just makes it easier as a reader to keep info that’s crystal clear (but complicated) in the writer’s head from getting me so confused as a reader that I’ll decide to dnf it all and go read something else.

    1. Yeah, when I’m doing alternating POVs I color code them on the spreadsheet so I can see when it’s gone too long without the other person’s POV.

  4. Thank you, Jenny! I knew about your act method (although it’s always good to have a reminder. But I had no idea your chapters get shorter too– that’s brilliant.

  5. Fun fact: Shakespeare didn’t divide his plays into Acts and scenes. That didn’t happen until the plays were published. But he certainly had an incredible sense of structure in his plays and poetry. I wonder how much he worked on it . . .

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