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Are Your Chapters Too Short?

Here’s the truth: Length doesn’t matter.

Ever.

I could throw in a juvenile pun here, but I’m going to spare you that. Instead I’ll focus on the fact that there is no set length for a chapter.

Translation: there are no rules.

I’ve seen chapters that are novella length (Brandon Sanderson anyone?) I’ve seen chapters that are just a few words long. I forget the book, but the chapter read “They ran.” Two words, one period. That was the entire chapter, and it worked. Yanked me through, like falling into an unexpected crevice in the ice.

Whatever works, that’s the correct length for a chapter.

What decides that isn’t you as the writer. It’s the reader. Which isn’t very helpful for a writer, I know. But you have to realize that as you’re writing, you’re also reading. You might be reading from your head, seeing the story as you type it out. Or you might be reading from your screen, seeing what your fingers type out. Whichever it is, you’re a reader as well as a writer.

When you feel that your chapter is over, then it’s over. It’s as simple as that.

Maybe you’ve planned it out. Maybe you’ve come up with the perfect cliffhanger. Or you’ve run into a perfect cliffhanger.

Or you realize that you’ve overwritten, and have to cut a few sentences or paragraphs because your scene is over and all you’re doing is typing on empty. That’ fine, too. You haven’t wasted those words, you’ve learned to recognize when you’ve passed a perfect break point.

That’s training. You’re building skill.

But what about when your chapter lengths detract from the reading? Isn’t that a problem.

Sure. If they do. But you’re the worst judge of that. That’s true for all writers. I’ve known a lot of writers, and I’ve yet to meet one that can evaluate their own work. In Stephen King’s words: we need to keep two disparate thoughts in our mind at the same time: this is great, and this is utter crap.

Doesn’t make for an easy way to judge, right?

So how do you know if your chapter lengths are a problem? Take a look at them over time. If every chapter in your story is exactly the same length, you might have a problem. You don’t have to, but you might. You’ll need to ask your beta readers.

You might have a problem if you have a lot of short chapters, and then a single giganormous one. That’s usually a sign that your scene has run away with you. Usually, but not always.

You might have a problem if your chapter lengths suddenly go down and you’re writing itsy-bitsy tiny-weeny chapters, and then, just as suddenly, you’re writing chapters at your normal length again. This might be a sign that you ran out of content, and your chapters are a sign of you searching for something to say. Might be that you need to remove them. Might, but, as you probably know by now, not always.

There is no always. There is only tools, and situations.

What tools are good in this particular situation? That’s something that you need to figure out. It’s going to be hard at first, but it will come. With skill, you’ll start to realize when you’ve gone off the rails and your story is struggling in the jungle. Everything up to then is practice.

So don’t feel discourages if your chapters are long or short, very varied or completely the same. It’s just a way that you’re writing right now, and as you learn, you’ll figure out other ways of writing, adding new tools to your writing craft box.

And that’s all you need to do.

Luck and Persistence!

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