Tag Archives: chapters

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?


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