Last week I determined, using rigorous scientific methods, the precise number of words for a chapter, no more, and no less. This was based on medical evidence and a joke that was meant to say there is no perfect length for a chapter and any effort to determine one is as silly as timing poops.
That having been said, though, those books with too-short chapters and the other books with too-long chapters still plague me. Surely there’s something off that I’m sensing and it’s not, to be honest, in any way connected to my bathroom habits.
Let’s dig a little deeper into this—the question of how long a chapter should be, that is, not my . . .
Anyway . . .
The number I arrived at last week was 2500 words, read in 12.5 minutes. Even if people read a little more slowly, that might be 15 minutes, or 20 minutes. Or, maybe, a morning’s commute by bus or train? Don’t read while you’re driving, but how about one chapter of an audio book if you drive to work? Could you read a chapter or two while on an exercise bike or other cardio machine either reading or listening? This would be a chapter per short lunch break, especially if you’re in school. I used to read during lunch when I was in school, and when I started working, too.
So even sans silliness about bathroom breaks I still like this number as a discreet package of minutes. It’s very reader-friendly, and we should all strive—at least a little bit and in service of our stories first—to be reader friendly.
See what I did right there? I said, “in service of our stories.”
Setting the math aside, what is a chapter even for, anyway? Why break our books up into chapters?
For a history of the chapter I’ll refer you to Nicholas Dames’s New Yorker article “The Chapter: A History.” From that article:
Novels have always been good at absorbing and recycling, taking plots and devices from other genres and finding new uses for them. With the chapter, novelists began, in the eighteenth century, to naturalize an informational technology from antiquity by giving it a new cultural role. What the chapter did for the novel was to aerate it: by encouraging us to pause, stop, and put the book down—a chapter before bed, say—the chapter-break helps to root novels in the routines of everyday life. The chapter openly permitted a reading oriented around pauses—for reflection or rumination, perhaps, but also for refreshment or diversion. Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” insisted that “chapters relieve the mind,” encouraging our immersion by letting us know that we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going—an attention paid out rhythmically—would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read.
In my studies of the number of words in a sentence and the number of sentences in a paragraph and how that affects your readers’ breathing, it’s the idea of the length of a pause—short breath at the end of a sentence, longer breath and the end of a paragraph—that changes the rate of breathing. Chapters, then, take that idea to the next level, with a much longer pause in which you’re essentially giving your readers “permission” (in quotes because no matter what you do, your readers will access your words in whatever way they damn well please) not just to take a breath but to step away for a moment.
This is what you need to think about—and let me stress this: you need to think about it: Where do you think it’s okay for your readers to put the book down for a minute, or until the commute home, or the next time nature calls? Leave off at a point that says two things:
It’s okay to step away . . . smoke ’em if you got ’em.
You’ll want to get back soon to see where this goes from here.
That last indicates that a chapter should end with some form of a cliffhanger. Though that’s a word that can be considered too literally sometimes, what I mean to say is that there is a pause in the story but not an end. That there’s some hint, either broadly (the hero actually is hanging from a cliff) or subtly (the heroine gets a letter from her husband but is afraid to open it) that something very interesting is going to happen in the next chapter.
For me, it’s that point, not the 2500th word, that tells you to put a chapter break there. If you’re writing a fast-paced thriller with lots of these cliffhanger moments, you should consider lots of short chapters. Who says if I have 25 minutes on the exercise bike, how many chapters I can read in that time? Two 2500-word chapters? One 5000-word chapter? Or five 1000-word chapters? It’s the pacing of the story that should determine that.
This leaves me thinking back to Peter F. Hamilton and Simon Green and their immensely long chapters. Is that slowing the perceived pace of what are, at least in Simon Green’s case, incredibly fast-paced space operas? I think so. I really like these books, but have to ask: Would I have liked them more if they’d been split up into chapters of no more than 5000 words?
Honestly, I would have.