The final chapter?

How long is a piece of string?

Despite a busy week of non-writing related things, including a trip to Brighton and some well-overdue catch-up time with old friends, the edit is continuing apace.

After getting to the end of the novel last week, I have now swept through it again – getting rid of continuity errors and unnecessary repetition, tightening up description and dialogue, adding in a few little layers of intrigue to the plot. Overall it is maturing nicely.

But as with so many of these things this ‘final’ sweep has thrown up more questions. Most significantly, have I organised it as effectively as I could?

I’m talking chapters here – how long, how many, where they begin and end. I thought I had that all figured out. I began the whole writing process with chapters after all – once I’d done my initial planning and a story had begun to take shape I neatly split it into 30-odd sections to structure the first draft. They weren’t all individual scenes, but they seemed to be the natural chapters – or so I thought. I gave all of these an identical word count target. I didn’t stick to it religiously, but they all turned out pretty uniform.

And I figured that was fine, until the bird’s eye view the latest read through afforded me made me doubt that.

I started to see chapter breaks elsewhere, and to link scenes in my mind that I’d previously separated. Some events seemed to warrant being surrounded by white space all of their own. And in general I found myself wanting to make the chapters shorter.

Ever the researcher, I did have a bit of a sniff around the internet to see what advice I could find. But the most common response to the question ‘how long is a chapter?’ seems to be ‘how long is a piece of string?’. There were a couple of sites that suggested readers prefer uniform chapter lengths so they can pace themselves more effectively and are more aware of what’s coming next. But then others that said a variety of chapter lengths was preferable, and these artificial divisions in the story should be governed only by the story itself.

The latter opinion definitely resonated more strongly with me. Everything I know about good writing from my years spent teaching it tells me that variety – as long as it’s not purely for the sake of it – is the way to go. This is borne out in the books I enjoy to read too, especially the ones that get me totally hooked. Thinking about it, I realised I like short chapters too. I hate the feeling of having pages and pages to go until I can easily take a break, and if I get to the end of a chapter then I’m more inclined to read on if it’s not going to be too epic.

I think this possibly makes me a bit of a lazy reader, but I figure I can’t be alone in that.

So there are considerably more chapters in my novel now. Most of them are shorter, some significantly so. And their length, and where they begin and end, is dictated by what the story and the characters need – and by default the things that are going to make the reader want to know what happens next.

There is one last thing I’m mulling over (well, for now anyway). And that is – how do I label these chapters? In the very beginning they had titles, but I ditched them fairly early on. Since then they’ve had numbers, but those are starting to feel a bit stilted as I navigate through the manuscript. I’m wondering if there is an alternative, or if in fact the chapters need any label at all. And then I’m wondering if I want to divide the novel into parts, to demarcate the different phases the story goes through.

What do you think? How do you like the novels you read to be organised? Or indeed what techniques have you used in your own writing?

I realise I’m possibly over-thinking things, and this is exactly the sort of detail that a publisher might decide to change if they ever get their hands on my novel, but in the meantime I may as well get things as close to perfect as I can, right?


Writing Bubble

9 thoughts on “The final chapter?

  1. maddy@writingbubble

    I’m a fan of short chapters myself – not short just for the sake of it but if they CAN be short I think it’s better as I’m more tempted to read on. Long chapters can be out-facing! As for sections, sometimes they work but I just read a book where they made the whole thing feel a bit self-important. Not quite sure why. Possibly because the book was so badly written! I guess this is the sort of thing that a publisher could help you with, although I like to think things through a lot like you do! Sounds like you’re making some good decisions to me. Thanks for linking to #WhatImWriting xx

  2. awesomeausterity

    I’m just green with envy at your editing prowess! My poor novel is still languishing unedited on my laptop. I’m not particularly fussy about length of chapter but I do agree about not having super long chapters. Personally I like when chapters have a title or a line of poetry etc at the beginning. Especially if I can then reflect back on this at the end of the chapter- I realise that might be quite hard work for you though! How about Roman numerals rather than numbers? Overall though I think you are right- it’s probably not a huge deal and mayb be changed at the publishing stage .

  3. Dana

    Wow, there is so much here in this post! First off, congrats on making it through another round of edits. I love reading about your process because I feel like I’m peeking ahead into my future (well, hopefully anyhow!). I think chapters should break, somewhat, naturally, and a variety of lengths makes sense, though I do like shorter chapters. I think it’s important to end a chapter with a question (not literally) or some suspense, in order to keep the reading from stopping. I also like using scene breaks when I’m not quite ready to end a chapter.

    I just took a quick look at the last 4 books I’ve read recently (mostly literary-ish novels), and the chapters are ALL numbered, some numerically others phonetically, and the funny thing is, I never noticed this at all while reading. Interesting!

  4. Funky Wellies

    First of all, congratulations on finishing your novel and doing so well with the editing! 🙂
    This chapter decision is always a bit of a question mark, isn’t it?
    When I read a book, I like chapters to be roughly the same length so it is what I did when writing my own manuscript. I found I naturally came to a good point to stop in the story every time.
    As for labelling them, as my story happens in different places and times, I put the chapter number, the location and the month/year to avoid confusion. I do not have a preference about how the chapters are labelled when I am reading.
    Hope this helps a bit! xx

  5. Mummy Tries

    Love the photo, which of course makes perfect sense once you’ve read the post 🙂 I prefer short chapters too, and can get a little put off if they’re too long. Especially at the moment where I’m reading so little… I don’t think they need titles tbh, but I do like the idea of the book being broken up into different sections. Well done Sophie, sounds like you are very nearly finished xxx.

  6. Morgan Prince

    I love short chapters, and I finish books quicker when they have shorter chapters. I think the longer chapter do feel a bit epic like you said. As for dividing it up, I don’t really have a preference, there aren’t many books I’ve read where I’ve thought the chapter numbers didn’t work or the named chapters. I think it’s a personal choice. xx

  7. Emily Organ

    I can so identify with this angst! I read Morrissey’s autobiography a while ago and he has no chapters, so that’s solves the problem. Personally I like shorter chapters – mine are usually 1,500 – 2,000 words and going up to 3,000 words max. Occasionally a 1,000 one. In my first book I numbered them only, in my second I’ve given them names as well. I can’t say I have a preference when I read a book, I’m more interested in the story itself and will pause reading when I reach a break which feels right to me (or when a child interrupts!).

  8. Chrissie@muddledms

    Wow. I need your editing skills!
    When I’m drafting generally I don’t do chapters. Maybe breaks, but not chapters. They come later.
    However, I’ve written a couple of time bound drafts, so each day was a chapter and the heading for the chapter was the date.
    Well done for getting it all done so quickly. X


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