A Chapter on Chapters

Something that has troubled me as a writer for years now is the chapter. Well, more importantly the length of the chapter.

I’ve done a lot of sleuthing and reading about chapter construction, scene-sequel, story structure, the whole nine yards and even googled the question “how long is a chapter” to see what other people think. It’s not necessarily that I feel like I need to hit this magical target number. But for a while, I’d be going through my outline, writing along and get to what I consider to be a good scene break/intended chapter ending and when I got back and check the word count of the section, it only came out to a few thousand words.

To give you a little bit of backstory, I used to try and pad my chapter lengths if I felt they were too short by adding more description or extending dialogue. The reason I’m even writing about this is because I just ended a chapter today that would be the second short chapter in a row. It capped out at the 3k mark.

The concept of chapter length has been on my mind lately because the sequence I just finished writing was originally intended to be one chapter seen through the eyes of the primary protagonist. It wasn’t until I sat down to start it did I realize that it would carry a whole lot more weight if I did it through the eyes of the secondary protagonist. She was the outsider to this world and had recently lost someone so there was more emotional baggage to play with. This all sounded great until I remembered that the whole point of the sequence was to have them encounter this supernatural entity, she needs to be knocked unconscious and he needs to drive the creature off to set up stuff for the future.

Ending the chapter with her going unconscious was a little Deux ex Machina for me. It would have the nice cliff hanger ending, but then she’d wake up and the other dude would have miraculously saved her. Option two would be to have her go out and then the next chapter would be showing how he saved her. The only problem with that route is it would make her chapter longer and make his even shorter. I ended up finding a happy medium where her chapter is the rest-let’s-collect-ourselves sequel from the previous scene. It ends with dread and the creature’s arrival and then the following chapter is the new action scene of the guy dealing with it.

So what does all of this have to do with chapter length? Most of the reading I’ve done on the subject says something like, “Don’t worry about length. A chapter will be as long as it needs to be.” Well, what the hell does that mean?

I’ve done a lot of self exploration and I’ve come to a few conclusions over the years. Many of these only actually solidified today. A lot of it is probably the concept of scene-sequel finally clicking in my head. Chapter endings sound great on paper but when it comes to the writing aspect, it’s not even what you’re writing, it’s why.

This isn’t a comic book or even a movie. You can’t just cut away to a snapshot of something foreboding or action packed that’s happening out there. You can show events, but they’re just that, events. There’s a beginning, middle and end to every chapter. The beginnings and endings of the scene can be played with for pacing, but just write about the event you need to write about.

If you’re too focused on getting from point A to point B then your problem isn’t your chapter length, it’s your prose. You’re not fleshing out the scene. You’re not making it real. You’re writing events because the plot told you to do so but there’s no emotion. There’s no story. At the end of the day, it’s how well you tell your story that’ll be what makes or breaks your book.

I’m using “you” to make this something of a helpful post, but you can pretty much replace each one these with I. I was focusing more on making sure I hit all the right beats then I was on the function of the stuff in general. I’ll have to go back and play with some of the earlier chapters now, but I’m pretty sure I know what to do to fix a lot of pacing issues I already know are there.

I’m not so worried about chapter length anymore and I know this book is going to be stronger because of it.

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