Chapters

Well, another topic that interested me turned up.  So, here we go.

Chapters.  How long should they be?

Oh my, oh honey, no.  That would be one of those silly “writing rules” that are such a terrible travesty of the creative process.  Forget should.

Now, that said, I’m going to tell you how long a chapter should be:  as long as it needs to be.

I say that a lot, don’t I?  Should a character be gay?  If they’re gay, yes.  Should I write in English or French?  Which do you prefer?

The only rule of writing is:

a) write
b) use proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, and so forth except when you need not to.  Never ignore them out of laziness or ignorance.
c) openly, deliberately, and consciously violate the laws of reality.  Doing so out of ignorance won’t do.  That’s not to say you should become a master locksmith to make up a lock for your burglar series, but rather that you should realise you know nothing of locks and thus deliberately make it up.  Know thyself whenst thou writeth.

What does this have to do with how long to make a chapter?  That’s the point.  How long a chapter is is only as relevant as it needs to be, as with most aspects of writing.

Really, just ask the lovely gentlemen of Oxford:

noun

  • 1a main division of a book, typically with a number or title:we will deal with this in chapter eleven
  •  an Act of Parliament numbered as part of a session’s proceedings.
  •  a section of a treaty:a majority voted for the inclusion of the social chapter in the treaty
  • 2a distinctive period in history or in a person’s life:the people are about to begin a new chapter in their history
  •  a series or sequence:the latest episode in a chapter of problems
  • 3the governing body of a religious community or knightly order:land granted by the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

See?  No defined length.  

There’s nothing even dictating one must have chapters.  Look at the fantastic Sir Terry Pratchett.  True, his YA Discworld books have chapters, but that’s at the behest of his YA publisher.  He’d not have them otherwise and has said so.

Oh, but Jaye, you’re one to talk your own chapters are absurdly long!  Well, okay, yes they are.  I have my methods.  I seriously considered not using chapters, but I decided that they made the story more manageable for both writing and reading if it had chapters and I agonised, at times, over where to break them.  I hope that, by and large, I’ve done well on that point.

Still, as with any aspect of storytelling, the length of a chapter should be natural.  Don’t put parameters of word count or page count to it or you’ll find yourself breaking your parameters often in order not to break in awkward places — or, worse, following them too rigidly indeed and breaking in those terribly awkward places.  A chapter break goes where a chapter break goes to you — where you feel is a good place to close this, oh look a cliché (actually an idiom, but too many authors and readers alike are fuzzy on the distinction), chapter of the plot (expression seem familiar?  “This chapter of my life” help?).  When in doubt, ask yourself where, in a movie, there would be a nice dissolve, or in TV where a commercial break would fit comfortably and you’ll be on a fair track.

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