What if some scenes in your novel are long and some are short? What do you do about that? Is there some standard scene length or chapter length for your novel? How do you control the chapter lengths in your novel?
Maddie posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hey Randy! My problem is consistency in chapter length. Some of my chapters are long, and some are very short. Sometimes I merge a few chapters together, but I feel like this isn’t the best way to improve. I’ve been working on adding more subtle detains about the surroundings of my characters in hopes of making those short chapters longer, but other than that I’m not sure what else to do.
Randy sez: Your question is about chapters but the underlying question is about scenes.
Let’s remember that there’s nothing fundamental about a chapter. Chapters just provide convenient mental milestones that let the reader know she’s making progress through your story.
Think Scenes, Not Chapters
The scene is the fundamental unit of fiction. (For more info on writing scenes, see my article Writing the Perfect Scene.)
A chapter is just a bag of scenes. So your scenes control your chapters. If your chapters are variable in length, it’s because your scenes are variable in length.
And there’s nothing wrong with scenes varying in length. That’s just normal. You can write a scene in a hundred words, sometimes. Or you can write a scene that goes on for three or four thousand words, sometimes.
My personal average is about a thousand words per scene, but that’s just me. Other authors write shorter or longer, on average.
You get to decide the typical length of your scene. A lot depends on the pace of your story and on its complexity. So your story and your personal storytelling style will control the length of your scene.
Creating Chapters From Scenes
You also get to decide the typical length of a chapter, but that decision is much more arbitrary. Every chapter has to contain at least one scene, but aside from that, your chapters can be whatever length you feel like.
So how do you go about deciding what your chapter length should be? I do it by deciding how many chapters I want in my novel. Typically, I have four Parts in my novel, and I’m looking to write about ten chapters in each Part. That works out to about forty chapters for the entire novel, plus or minus.
Doing the math, that means that if I write a novel with 100,000 words, then each chapter will have about 2500 words, which works out to two and a half scenes.
Of course, you can’t have two and a half scenes in a chapter. A scene is fundamental. Scenes are the atoms of fiction.
So how do I assign scenes to chapters? I just glop together enough scenes to get a total close to 2500 words, and I call that a chapter. If I go under by 1000 words, that’s OK. Some chapters are short. If I go over by 500 words, that’s OK too.
I prefer to go under, rather than over, because the end of the chapter is a milestone for my reader, and I want my readers to feel like they’re burning through the chapters.
More Thoughts on Chapters
I prefer to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, which can be either a setback or a decision. Either way, it keeps the reader hungry, and a hungry reader is a reader who wants to read one more chapter, even if it’s 3 AM.
Maddie, you suggested that you can try to fill out a chapter by adding more description to your scenes. That will certainly make your chapters longer, but it doesn’t add more story, and readers are reading for story, not for description.
So if you’ve got a short chapter, either add in another scene, or just live with the short chapter. It’s not a crime to have a short chapter. James Patterson writes nothing but short chapters, and he seems to be selling okay.
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Connie Arlitt says
Finally, I understand this very important subject.
Martin Rinehart says
Jane Austen used almost none. In P&P, for example there’s a half page of total description when E first visits Pemberley.
If there is no information needed, you certainly don’t want description. If information is needed, A says to B, “Look at that!”
Reread the first chapter of P&P to see how a master handles it. It’s a family chat where Mr. B. is refusing to visit newcomer Bingley. All dialog. You meet many main characters (Mr. & Mrs. B, all five children) and learn about Bingley, too.