Chapter Length - The Long and the Short
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
I've been pondering chapter lengths again. As I've argued in the past, there is no "proper" chapter length, and anyone saying otherwise is putting on a show. As structural (and, in some cases, narrative) elements, chapters are as much a part of writing style as anything else. It's another thing you shouldn't sweat over.
Original post in audio form for your convenience.
But might there be certain situations that call for chapters that are exceptionally long or short? It occurs to me that there are certain genres, styles and platforms that lend themselves to certain chapter lengths. This is information that can be helpful when planning a novel, so long as one doesn't get too uptight about it. Sadly, I don't have any mathematical data on this, and I can't make a graph to justify my opinions, so take them for what they are - one man's observations after years of working in different formats.
Situations Calling for Short Chapters
Serial fiction (and works meant to resemble it). Conventional wisdom in the world of online serials is that audiences prefer shorter chapters. Very short chapters, in fact - some platforms and articles suggest flash fiction length chapters of around a thousand words. Whether this is ideal, it is clear that a lot of serial writers prefer short chapters. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes advantages - it enables the author to spread work across a longer period of time with more frequent updates. Short chapters are also well-suited to self-contained works written in an episodic style, where lots of short chapters mean lots of mini-cliffhangers.
Works with multiple POVs. In a story with lots of POV characters, the ability to jump between their perspectives is useful. This can mean more and shorter chapters, or shorter chapters just for the less critical POV characters. Some writers who use multiple POVs even forego a conventional chapter structure in favor of a two-level hierarchy of novella-length divisions that are broken up by POV. This is the approach I used for my most recent iteration of Nerd World, and it's a style I stole from people who've used it to great effect.
Situations Calling for Long Chapters
Nonfiction. Most of the advice I give is specifically for fiction, but let's not forget that nonfiction is a larger piece of the market. Nonfiction books in most popular categories tend to have longer chapters - twenty to thirty pages, more in some cases. There are exceptions to this, especially creative nonfiction (read: biography and memoir), but even here there's little expectation that a full-length work will have dozens of chapters.
Epic works. Naturally, if your overall page count is very long, you're likely to have more and/or longer chapters. However, if your massive narrative spends a lot of time on detail and doesn't feature a lot of perspective switches or hopping across long distances, then it's likely your chapters will be longer. Remember, a chapter is often a little story in and of itself, and a really big narrative is going to need more time to explore those. Obviously this can get excessive - write a single battle into a 100-page chapter and it'll be hard to defend - but it's fine to go a little longer than usual.
These are the cases that occurred to me. Did I miss any? Are there any other situation that warrant chapters of a certain length? Let me know in the comments.