Chapter length is more a matter of rhythm and consistency than it is hard numbers. Chapters that are exceptionally long or short in relation to the rest of your chapters change the flow of your book in undesirable ways.
Super-short chapters act like flags to readers. It’s like the tight, gathered stance and deep breath of a gymnast preparing to mount the apparatus—everyone can see that the big moment is coming up. If you don’t want to send that kind of signal, graft short chapters to another chapter. On the other hand, if you really do want readers to consciously process the foreshadowing—”Houston, there’s something weird going on here, I can just feel it”—then a remarkably short chapter may be just the right clue.
Even when you have the pace flying along with the action building to a peak, long chapters can let the air out of your story’s tires. It’s all about pacing. Readers keep going and going and going, and pretty soon they’re wondering if this thing is ever going to end. Because the shape of a chapter generally rewards readers with a little nugget of suspension at the end (creating that page-turner effect), a really long chapter makes readers wait a really long time for their end-of-chapter payoff. You may lose their attention if you drag things out too long.
Still hungry for a hard number to follow? In a typical 80,000-word novel, I recommend aiming for about 2,000 words per chapter. That’s just enough to gulp down in a convenient sitting. Give readers plenty of opportunities to turn the corner and stand ready for more rather than constantly struggling to break free from the weeds.
How to fix imbalanced chapter lengths
There’s really no big trick to spotting and repairing chapters that are too short or too long. Go through your book and log the word counts (or page counts, if that’s easier for you to process) for each chapter. Then review the list and look for the extremes. Are strikingly short or long chapters creating an effect on the narrative curve you didn’t intend? If so, see if you can reshuffle a bit.
At the same time, look for opportunities to bolster narrative effects you do want. Want to pick up the pace? Lean toward shorter scenes and chapters. That won’t work if you end up making the whole story churn away at the same rapid pace, so save the effect for sections (especially the end) where a quicker pace matters.
As you adjust chapter lengths, make sure each revised chapter still presents a complete scene or set of scenes, including a new problem for your characters, raised stakes, and a new choice or turning point at the end. Anything less will feel fragmentary and won’t keep readers mumbling “just one more chapter before I turn out the light …”
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Image: Stephen Brace