Uncle Orson's Writing Class
April 1, 2004
I find it hard to write long chapters. At the current pace of action it seems to me
that my novel will have a good length when I finish. Of course, that is hard for me
to judge because this is my first novel. Also, I'm only at 3500 words so I guess it
would be hard to judge anyway. The thing is, that at 3500 words I have my first
chapter and a good part of my second chapter. I don't know if my pacing is too
fast, or if I just don't know where to divide chapters. The truth is I don't know the
rule for chapter divisions if there is one. I know it should have some sort of story
arc, but I don't really know what is worthy of a new chapter. If you could just tell
me some common problems that writers have with chapter divisions and maybe
something you know that can help, that would be great. Thank You.
-- Submitted by Ben Scott
Chapter length is completely arbitrary. You can divide chapters however you
Robert Parker, for instance, uses very short chapters in his Spenser novels. Other
writers have only five or six chapters in an entire novel.
Some writers divide chapters into sections from one character's point of view, so
that the chapters change as often as the point of view shifts.
Some writers divide chapters after climactic scenes; others try to end them on
cliffhangers or stunning revelations, so that the reader must turn the page and keep
Some writers (and now I'm speaking of myself) tend to begin a novel with short
chapters, to create a fast-moving rhythm as the reader is just getting engaged in the
story. Later chapters are much longer, on the presumption that the reader who gets
this far is already interested and willing to read through much longer movements.
A chapter can be a single word, though this is a huge "special effect" that should
only be done once in a career. But it's not rare to have a two- or three-page
chapter at some crucial point in a book, because it needs to be set off from
everything around it.
In other words, there are no rules. Just remember that each chapter break provides
benefits - a sense of closure, of progress, of movement through the book - and
imposes costs - a detachment from the story, a place where the book can be set
down, an interruption in the onward flow. So you decide for yourself what rhythm
and pace you want to establish, and when the costs of a chapter break are worth
By the way, there are also "parts" and "volumes," which are longer than chapters
and include them. These are used only when needed - they impose an even deeper
division and greater cost, but imply a much stronger shift in time, place, or
viewpoint, so sometimes these, too, are worth it.