Chapters are a wonderful invention that help to compartmentalise a novel, breaking it up into sections that are easily read in one sitting. They divide the story into a series of scenes that move it forward in easily digestible chunks. If the momentum builds, the reader is tempted to turn the page and read another chapter. They also provide a sense of accomplishment as each one is finished. How many of us can bear to stop reading before we reach the end of a chapter?
The length of a chapter
The average length of a novel is 80,000 to 90,000 words, and there are usually at least twenty to thirty chapters. For a manuscript of 85,000 words, that means a word count of about 2,800 to 4,200 words per chapter. Having said that, there are no rules or standards about the number of chapters that a book should contain or the length of each. It is entirely your decision.
There is also no requirement to have a standard chapter length within a novel. Some writers prefer to have chapters of similar word count, while others have a mixture of short, long and medium-length ones.
Fast paced stories such as thrillers tend to have short chapters, often seventy to eighty or even more than one hundred. That is an important aspect of those stories. It helps to keep the action short and sharp and the reader turning the pages. My novels have more than seventy, and well-known author James Patterson is renowned for having very short chapters.
Some writers choose to have no chapters while others have only a small number. It is an area where you have full creative flexibility in how you wish to relate your story.
How to plan your chapters
It may seem logical to decide on chapters in the early stages and flesh out your plans for each one before you begin to write. However, my advice is to take the opposite approach. I suggest that you forget about your chapters until you have finished your first draft.
Here is the method that I recommend:
- As you write your story, be sure to insert scene breaks as you go. Use three asterisks or hashtags on a separate line between each scene. Some of those will later be used as convenient chapter breaks, although many of them will remain as breaks within a chapter. My novels have two or three scene breaks in most chapters and sometimes more than that.
- You might also decide to insert breaks within a single scene to increase the tension or change perspective. For instance, the ideal place might be if one character is in great danger, or if Aunt Mary walks in and interrupts an important conversation.
Once you have finished your first draft and then polished and re-polished it to your satisfaction, divide your novel into chapters before you send it out to editors.
Dividing your novel into chapters
After finishing that first draft, you can insert the chapters at the most logical breaks in your story, when a scene comes to an end and before another one begins. But to increase tension, try ending each chapter at a point that will have your reader keen to find out what happens next. That can mean ending a chapter halfway through a scene, when something dramatic is about to occur. Your reader will then be sure to turn the page. Complete that scene at the beginning of the next chapter, and have a break before moving on to the next one.
Look carefully at the end of each chapter and decide if is in the best place to enhance your story.
How to name your chapters
You have a number of options for naming your chapters, generally using numerals or writing out the numbers in full. Here are the four standard methods for headings:
You can also give your chapter a creative title and either list that below the number or dispense with it.
Authors sometimes add a small verse or phrase below the chapter heading, but make sure you have permission if quoting another writer’s work.
I would love to hear about your approach to chapters.
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