Thursday, July 11, 2024

Dear O'Abby: How long should my chapters be?

 Dear O'Abby,

I tend to write my books straight through without any chapter breaks, and now I'm at the end of the writing process, I'm curious as to whether there is an optimum length for chapters?  I feel like there are some pretty natural breaks in my story where I could put chapter breaks, but they are not always a consistent length apart.  

Does that matter?  Is there an industry standard?  A genre standard?  I'm really not sure...

Any advice would be gratefully accepted.



Dear Lengthy,

Like most writing question, the answer to this is "it depends".  There are a lot of very popular books out there with very short chapters, but they are usually thrillers or stories with a lot of suspense.  Having short, snappy chapters in a book like that keeps things moving at a rapid pace. On the other hand, if you're writing something deeper and more rooted in character and place, you probably want longer chapters for your readers to fully immerse themselves in.

And if you're writing something that's both of these things, you may want to switch from long to short and back again depending on how you want the reader to feel.

If you're writing in dual POV, you'll probably want to have a chapter break where the POV changes because changing POV midway through a chapter can be dis-orientating for the reader.  But that's not a hard and fast rule.  I've read multi-POV books where you get a range of voices in each chapter, usually separated by **** to indicate change, but not always.  Sometimes a writer is so good at differentiating the voices, they don't need a signal to indicate the switch in POV.  Sometimes...  It's not something I've seen often.

My personal approach to chapter length is to always find a spot to finish a chapter where something is happening or just about to happen.  You don't want the reader to feel that they have permission to put the book down at any point.  Your job as a writer is to keep progressing the story and to make it un-put-downable.  So I always try to end each chapter on a cliffhanger of sorts so the reader might say "just one more chapter. Then I'll go to sleep..."  But over and over until they've stayed up until 3am to finish reading.

There are no real rules and I very much doubt that any publisher is out there counting how many words there are in each of your chapters.  They're more interested in whether the story is compelling enough to keep reading all the way through and that the pace of the book holds up.  

Hope that's helpful!

X O'Abby