Wherein we address the question: how long should my chapters be?
We’ve all been there. It’s late, the eyelids are getting heavy, you’re laying there reading and the lights are begging to go out. But the book is good, it has nothing at all do with your jonesing need to fall asleep. Like, right now.
And so you flip ahead… if only you can just make it until the end of the chapter. Or at least a break in the chapter, as indicated by one of those lovely skipped lines that indicate a new scene.
Something in our DNA doesn’t allow us to peacefully just stop in the middle of a page, without a line break or a new chapter to look forward to. It’s just wrong.
And it absolutely sucks when there’s eleven more pages before that happens.
Which begs the question as writers, if not readers… how long should chapters be?
Chapters vs. Scenes
The answer resides in your understanding of the difference between chapters and the scenes that comprise them. Because when you do, it no longer matters how long your chapters are.
What matters is how long your scenes are.
A chapter is a contrivance. It can consist of one scene, or it can consist of several scenes. Even many scenes.
A scene is a unit of seamless dramatic narrative.
Think of a scene as a one-act play. Or as a singular passage of omniscient narrative that may indeed bridge decades, but holds to together like a contextual introduction or a letter bringing you up to date.
If the narrative changes point of view, from one character’s to another’s, that’s always a new scene.
If your narrative changes time or location, that’s a new scene, too.
If back-to-back scenes have an affinity – such as three important encounters in a single day, for example, and each of them comprises a different scene – you may choose to make those three scenes into a single chapter.
But if you do that, if you include more than one scene in your chapters, I strongly recommend you visually separate them with white space. Skip a line or two when you transition from one scene to the next.
Just like I’ve done here between paragraphs.
This gives you permission to have very short scenes, even quick cutaways, which together form a sequence, all the while allowing the reader to understand the shifts of time and location involved.
Transitioning between chapters, that’s a no brainer. You get a new page and a big bold number to help you. Transitioning between scenes, especially when two or more are presented within a single chapter… go for the white space.
At least you’ll be giving your reader a chance to finally get some sleep.
The Most Important Element of Scene Writing
When you are planning your story using the four-part structural principles and their attendant plot points, mid-point and pinch points, as well as the unique contexts of each of the four parts (quartiles), you should think in terms of scenes, not chapters.
A story has roughly 40 to 80 scenes. Not 40 to 80 chapters. How you divide them into chapters is driven by affinity and need, not by the need to separate your scenes.
For that you just skip a couple of lines and move on.
Chapters are simply a collection scenes with an affinity, either topical or sequential. If there is no affinity, consider going to the next chapter.
Bestselling novelist James Patterson is a big fan of single-scene chapters, resulting in books that present well over 100 chapters, some as short as one page. He could just as easily offer 40 chapters, even when the scenes number well over 100.
How many chapters you have doesn’t really matter. How they are grouped, affinity-wise, does.
How many scenes does matter, though, because each scene must be in context to where it resides in the four part structure. If you have 60 scenes, then each Part has roughly 15 scenes to work with. Give or take.
Remember, the scenes in the Part 1 set-up have a completely different contextual mission than the scenes in the Part 4 conclusion.
If you end up with three scenes in your Part 1 set-up, that’s too few. There’s no way you can accomplish what needs, according to accepted storytelling principles, to be presented in Part 1 of any story in just three scenes.
If you believe you have accomplished those things, and it took you only three scenes, then you’ve violated yet another principle: each scene should offer only one salient story point, the optimized dramatic potential of which becomes the mission of that scene.
On the other hand, if you have 33 scenes in Part 1, then chances are you’ve pushed your First Plot Point well beyond its appointed place at roughly the 20th to 25th percentile mark. You’re asking your reader to hang around far beyond a reasonable level of patience before something actually happens in the story.
That’s another reason altogether your reader my be aching to go to sleep.
All of this becomes intuitively natural when you apply the most important principle of scene writing. And that is to make sure each scene has a specific narrative mission to accomplish.
That it has one specific thing, one piece of story exposition, that it seeks to get out there. When you know that mission, then you are free to apply the most dramatic and cool presentation of it possible.
The opening of Inglorious Basterds is a great example. That 8-minute scene had one mission: to show the evil Nazi was there to kill the folks hiding under the floor. The rest of it was just dramatization of that one mission.
If you have two pieces of narrative information to dispense, consider crafting two scenes.
Issues of characterization aren’t at issue here.
This is about plot exposition. All scenes are charged with the responsibility to demonstrate character… that isn’t the mission in question.
That said, a scene that only exists to demonstrate character is a weak scene. Each scene needs an expositional mission, and only one, in addition to the work of characterizing its players.
If you’d like to learn more about story structure, please consider my ebook, Story Structure – Demystified. It’s part of my two-for-one offer, which lasts until March 15 – buy Story Structure – Demystified and I’ll also send you The Three Dimensions of Character… free.