How Long Should a Chapter Be?
I recently posted a statement on Facebook that I was deep in the throes of the next book and that the first chapter was already over 12,500 words long. A reader commented that she steers clear of books with long chapters because she is easily distracted. That unless the book is fast-paced, she finds herself drifting off in her mind. I asked her if she had ever given any of mine a try. She stated she had but derailed in the middle because it wasn't fast-paced enough. That was a head-scratcher because I write action thrillers and have had numerous reviews on the quick pace of my books. I had to shake my head and move on. After all, my style is my style and it won't appeal to everyone. I just do the best I can and try to get better every time I start a new project.
But it begged the question: How long should a chapter be?
Here is my failed attempt at a short answer. As long as needed to set a scene, make a point, or convey a message. But not so long that it sets too many scenes, too many points, or conveys too many messages. And not so short that it has effectively divided the same scene, same point, or same message into multiple pieces right in the middle.
Make sense? A little confusing? I thought so. Let me expand on that a bit.
My style tends to be what is called Third Person - Multiple. Meaning that I tell the story from the perspective of a character as if you were standing over that person's shoulder and seeing what they see, or listening into their thoughts and dialed in to their perspective. And it is done by bouncing around from one character's perspective to another. When doing this, it is important that the writer clearly show the reader when that perspective is about to change. In my first book, Slaughter: Origin Story, I thought that every time I changed perspective, I needed a new chapter. This led to a lot of chapters. Some far less than a page in length. I learned somewhere in the middle of all of that, I was wrong.
If the scene I am setting is one where a remote cabin is about to be attacked by an army of bad-guys, I might start with the perspective of the character inside the cabin going about their normal routine, unsuspecting of the evil that is about to befall them. At some point in time, maybe that routine is suddenly broken by the sound of footfalls being detected on the floor above that characters head. Footfalls that should not be there because they are the only person home. Next, I change perspective to a bad guy invading the home, doing their best to sneak up and surprise their intended victim. Suddenly, he hears a noise. Maybe then, I switch to the perspective of the leader, connected to his men by radio, discovering that one by one his team is vanishing from coms and he is losing contact with them.
My old opinion was that with every perspective change we need a new chapter. And that might be true if most of the book is telling the story of a home invasion. But if this scene is only a microcosm of the entirety of the book, and there are many battles yet planned throughout the duration of the read, then perhaps this is but one chapter. If this is the case, we merely need to break up those perspective changes with clear chapter breaks instead.
What is a chapter break? Here is an example...
That little dashed line with space above and below is sufficient enough for the reader to distinguish the change. In our example of the home invasion where that event is but small piece of the entire book, we might be able to keep that event reigned down to one or two chapters. It does not need to be twelve chapters long and comprised of only 8,000 words. That is just silly. By the same token, this can be taken to the extreme. -YOU- will have to determine when enough is enough. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Robert Jordan is a famous author that wrote a fantasy series called The Wheel of Time. It is a massive series where the author painted a detailed universe, and told his epic tale between several characters across 15 lengthy novels. Holy cow, is it huge. RJ tended to use up a lot of words when describing things. It appeals to some and not to others, but that is not my point. From the very beginning of book 1, you know he is building to a final battle in which good or evil will reign supreme. When that final battle comes, the last chapter is properly titled: The Last Battle. It is intimidating in size. Over 81,000 words by itself. For some perspective, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone was 78,000 words in its entirety. This one chapter changed perspective over 50 times! It's crazy. Now you or I may never complete such a lengthy work, and granted, this is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. For me, it has been my guiding light; my north star. I try to keep all the events of a single event, even if they are told from multiple perspectives from a host of characters, consolidated within single chapters.
Look at it this way... When a seasoned reader clicks onto your page in the Amazon store and sees that the entirety of the size is 83,000 words, but there are 53 chapters, he or she will wrinkle their nose in disdain. There is a perception painted here with well read readers. It tells them that you are a novice and don't know what you are doing. Maybe that's not true. Maybe that story is as immersive and breathtaking as they come. You are the next great thing to hit your genre since the last great thing. Whoever that was. So, don't pull a rookie mistake and make your chapters so short that it turns off perspective readers. By the same token, until you have achieved the status of a Robert Jordan and made millions of dollars and have had your books read hundreds of millions of times, maybe you don't write a chapter that is the size of a typical Harry Potter book.