Notes on creative writing: How long should a chapter be?

The second in an occasional series of posts reflecting on bits and pieces I’ve learned teaching Creative Writing both previously at UEA and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and now, at City, University of London, where I run the MA/MFA Creative Writing, which is now recruiting for September 2021 entry.

How long should a chapter be?

This is a question I’ve been asked in class by novel-writing students, and it’s not a stupid question. Chapters are odd things, that we tend to take for granted, and that most of us won’t have thought properly about until we try to write one. Or, once we’ve started writing one, when we ask ourselves when we are supposed to stop.

The best way of thinking about chapters (like so much else in writing) will be to think of it from the reader’s point of view. A reader sees chapters first of all as way of measuring a book. A book is divided into chapters like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange is divided into segments. Eat one segment, and you might get an immediate sense of whether you will want to eat the whole thing in one go, or spread the pieces out. Chapters give a sense of scale, then, and also a sense of rhythm. Even though chapters aren’t necessarily all the same size, like Chocolate Orange segments, they will tend to be more or less the same.

Once upon a time, that decision – of how many chapters to ‘eat’ in one go – wasn’t left to the reader. In the Nineteenth Century, novels were usually serialised, published one chapter at a time in weekly or monthly periodicals, and only collected as a book once they were finished. (It wasn’t just commercial novels that were serialised. Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were originally published this way.)

This led to two results for novels: they tended to get longer, as writers padded out and extended storylines that were proving popular with readers; and novelists learned to end chapters on a cliff-hanger, an unresolved plot element that would not just make readers want to know what happened next, but would stick in their heads for the week or month until the next instalment.

The length issue doesn’t really apply today – novel lengths follow different fashions – but the cliff-hanger element still remains, albeit at a lower pitch. If you’re reading a book in bed, as many of us do, a chapter break is an invitation to put the book down and switch your light off. (Chapters are a matter of convenience, for readers, in a different way than for writers; they make the process of reading a novel easier.) But equally a strong chapter ending is an invitation to read on: just one more chapter, you think. 

So now the issue of chapters isn’t simply one of scale and magnitude – you wouldn’t chop an 80,000-word novel up into 20 exactly equal sections and call them chapters – but of pacing and plotting. You might think the necessary element of a chapter ending is to resolve something in what has come before, and to open something else up for resolution later. After all, a reading experience that ended each chapter on a cliff-hanger, and resolved that cliff-hanger immediately and comprehensively with the first line of the following chapter would make for a very jerky and unpleasant reading experience. Why not tell us that at the end of the chapter and have done with it, you’d think. Why not treat us like adults?

Equally, the length of chapters tends to have a different function in different kinds of books. In simple terms, the longer the chapter or section, the longer the attention span needed to keep all of its elements in mind. Novels with no chapter or section breaks at all are rare, though short chapters or parts can be as much a sign of fragmentation as ‘easy-peeler’ or spoon-fed storytelling.

A chapter break is an opportunity for the reader to reflect on what has happened in the preceding section, and hypothesise about what might happen next. It gives you food for thought for the night and day ahead, until you pick the book back up again. But there is a risk here. A chapter break is not just invitation to read on, but also an invitation to not read on. Is the reader interested enough in the characters, in the plot, in the writing, to pick the book back up the following evening? Obviously, it’s not good or bad chapters that decide a reader’s response to the book they’re reading, but chapters offer a way of thinking about the book.

Chapters, then, are a tool for readers, but for writers as well. For beginning writers, especially, they are a way of organising plot, and of planning and measuring how much happens in your story, in terms of the number and frequency of events, and the magnitude of those events. A chapter breakdown of a work in progress can be a way of seeing what kind of shape the work as a whole has, and how well proportioned it is, and can point up chapters where nothing much seems to happen.

Of course, chapters where nothing happens are not necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re not persuading your reader to keep turning pages through exciting incident, or compelling characterisation (as revealed through incident), then there had better be something else there to make them do it.

I’ll also say this: don’t think that this insistence on plot means this is the only measure of success in novel-writing. Far from it. I love and admire many novels that dispense with plot, or seem to. But I believe that those novels that do this have somehow absorbed plot into their operation, so that the propulsive aspect of it takes place at a deeper level. Those writers are able to do without plot because they understand what function it provides, and have found ways of doing what plot provides secretly, or in other ways.

Plot is, I think, for most learning writers, an essential skill to learn. And chapters are a way of organising your thinking, or getting your ducks lined up in a row. But beyond that, they are a way of setting out your stall to the reader. Every novel (every story) implicitly explains the rules for its own reading – its rationale – as it goes along. It does this through narrative voice, and through the rhythm and scene and chapter, or section, or part. This is a unit of reading, the novel says, this is how I’m going to parcel out this story. This is how I’m going to serve up my action, my surprises, my ideas. 

Of course, one you’ve established that rhythm, that rate of exchange, it’s entirely up to you to change or subvert it. But that, too, is part of your implicit contract with the reader. How long should a chapter be? As long as it takes for you to make your point.

Oh, and by the way, the photo at the top of the post is from the contents page of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, which I happen to be reading at the moment, two chapters a day, in an online read-a-long. The chapters are quite short, averaging out at five pages each, and their approach is definitely counter-propulsive. There is little in the way of flow between one chapter and the next. Each one is like a little run-up to a jump, or someone push-starting a motorbike that they’re about to jump onto, only it never happens. But again, this is not a writer breaking the rules; it’s a writer setting out the rules of engagement, the rules for how to read their novel, as they go along.

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