I made another AuthorTube video for this week, but I also thought I’d doctor up my script to make a post. If you’d rather watch this blog, scroll on down and go to YouTube, or you can also just keep reading if you find my voice as annoying as I do.
So, a question that’s been on my mind lately is exactly the title here: how long should my chapters be?
To be clear, I am asking this question and trying to answer it for myself, but not for anyone else. Also, this isn’t admonishment or praise of the way anyone else does things, it’s not a brag or a self-drag of how many words I’ve written, and it’s not meant to be a discussion of quality versus quantity or art versus consumerism. It’s just the question: how many words make a proper and consumable chapter?
When I asked this on Twitter, the responses, though very few, were basically “just write what feels right,” and that’s all well and good, but sometimes that advice (for this and other things) comes off as a little snarky, like those people have their intuition pinned down and the rest of us are just floundering. Because I think we all know that chapters exist for a reason, so don’t be fucking coy about it.
Chapters are meant to give the reader a break, to break up the action, to allow for time to pass, to build tension, to switch points of view, and (to me, at least) chapters create a sense of continuity in the piece of writing as a whole. Of course there are plenty of amazing books that don’t do chapters at all or that have really unique lengths, but the fact of the matter for me is this: I am self published, and I probably need to do what will best serve my audience. That isn’t to say that if I think a 2000 word chapter is perfect then I’ll change the prose if I write a scene that’s 1900 or 2100 words, adding or cutting to meet some arbitrary number (though I would argue that the number isn’t exactly arbitrary either). It’s just that I would aim for consistency to keep the reader relatively comfortable and happy with the book.
If I establish consistency with chapter length, then I can use chapters in a more impactful way. A very short or long chapter will be more meaningful when surrounded by chapters of average length. It’s like sentence length: for action you can use short, punchy sentences to make the action go by quickly and intensely, while long, rambling sentences let the reader feel calmer.
So my current work in progress is She’s All Thaumaturgy (SAT) which sits at about 87k words and 58 chapters and averages 1.5k words per chapter. Some are much longer, some are much shorter, as you’d imagine. This is in line with The Korinniad which is just shy of 75k words and 43 chapters which averages about 1750 words per chapter in its final form. But I specifically formed The Korinniad into shorter chapters because of advice I read online. This isn’t to say the book isn’t from my heart, I definitely think it works as is, I’m just wondering if I want to continue working with this concept into my current draft.
Some of the advice that runs the gamut of ideals on chapter length are here:
Chris Fox has a video that argues attention spans are shorter nowadays (and I think that’s probably accurate) and suggests 1.2k words on average per chapter.
In a Jenna Moreci video, she says length doesn’t matter, nor does continuity.
And then I found this article that averaged out longer, published fantasy works, and the very shortest chapter average was 2.9k words, way longer than Chris’s, and the average of all the averages was around 6k words which I don’t think I’d ever utilize for a chapter length.
So what do I do?
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with 58 chapters, I just wonder if SAT will function better with less chapters that are longer since that’s more natural to my writing. Will it feel that weird to readers? My problem when writing, though, is I often write really long, rambling sentences. I consider this part of my voice even though I am working to cut some of them down, but I’m concerned that these long, rambling sentences mixed with longer chapters might make for a slower, and more boring, read. Then again, a short chapter with many long sentences might make for a too-quick, less engaging read!
But putting all that aside, it looks like I naturally write between 2.5k and 3k words per chapter. So in working on my most recent revision, I’ve been piecing the shorter chapters together. This isn’t something I would do right before publishing, but I’m at a place in this revision process where I feel comfortable playing with the structure: I can go back and revert it if I want, or I can continue forward and change it all with enough time to do whatever I choose to do correctly and still release in May.
So far I’ve modified the first third of the book, and it went from 18 chapters down to 9, and it feels really good. So was all that advice I was annoyed with about just writing what feels right, right? I guess I won’t know til I’m done with the book and I get feedback, but that feedback would have to be very specific to which book, The Korinniad or She’s All Thaumaturgy, has a better chapter length feel, but could that comparison even be made if both books are written to fit their own chapter lengths? It’s a bunch of unknowns all for probably not a very important reason to be concerned, and yet here I am, riddled with anxiety about the most arbitrary things possible. (And congrats if you got this far, that bit about anxiety isn’t in the video at all.)
Let me know if you feel strongly about any of this in the comments (I did say that in the video too), as I really would like to hear what other people think and how they process this kind of thing. Okay, bye!