How many words should a story be? Or, to take it to a more manageable level for a novel: How many words should a chapter be?
I have always been of the opinion that a chapter should be as long – or as short – as it needs to be, to make its point and to fulfill the theme or minor conflict presented therein. (I’m a big fan of themes.) Of course, sometimes you write yourself into a bit of a corner. When I was writing 1 More Chance!, I created an artificial parameter: that each chapter would cover what happened in any given day of my heroine’s life. That worked all right…for a while. But, as the story progressed into the later chapters, there was so much going on for her in a chosen day that my chapters were over 10,000 words long! (Occasionally, far over 10K words…!)
Now, 1MC! was a fan fiction endeavour, so it was really just me playing around in another world. There was never any chance of it being published beyond the regular fan sites, and my readers were gobbling up the words regardless, so I didn’t have a problem with it. But, once I started doing research for Fearless – a real novel, that I hoped to publish – I started rethinking my no-holds-barred approach to chapters.
One blogger mentioned that the average chapter (for a new, unproven writer, not a King or Crichton) should run between ten and fifteen pages. Any less, and you risk rushing things. Any more, and you risk losing your readers from boredom. I took this advice mostly to heart…except that pagecount is rather arbitrary.
Think about it: If I type at 10-point Times New Roman font, my wordcount for ten pages is going to be different from someone else who types at 12-point Courier font. (As a side note, use standard professional fonts when you type, especially if you’re going to submit your manuscript to anyone professional. Comic Sans is always a no-no.)
So, I started to think. What’s the best average length – in wordcount – for a chapter?
You’ll recall from a few paragraphs ago that my fan fiction story, 1 More Chance!, had chapters running into the teens and twenty-thousands of words. That is way, way too much. So, for Fearless, I started concentrating on the pagecount. I came to find that – in my style – I was comfortable with chapters running, on average, between 6,000 and 8,000 words each. I think that’s a respectable length. It gets the themes across to the reader, and it resolves the smaller conflicts that are part of the larger whole. So, if you’re reading the story as a book, you can put it down at the end of the chapter if you so choose…or you can keep reading to find out what’s going to happen next.
Maybe you think I’m writing this the wrong way. I don’t know. To be honest, though, I care more about the story than the mechanics of the format. I suppose that’s short-sighted of me, given that I do want to sell this book, and I do want to make it a good read for others. I know what I like, though; I know how I enjoy reading a book. Shouldn’t that count for something?
I think what made chapter length difficult for me was that scene changes. I wouldn’t know when or where it was a good place to use a scene change or a chapter change, and well, since I haven’t written anything really chapter-y and just a bunch of scenes I’d like to use for my story, I probably still don’t know where to cut a chapter. But, while I did try to keep my fic’s chapters below 10,000 words, I figured that 6,000 to 8,000 was a good target place, too.
I know where you’re coming from, spooney.
I usually choose to center my chapters around thematic elements, often the minor conflict that arises within. Once the characters overcome that conflict, they can move on to the next one, which is captured in the following chapter.
One issue with that approach, though, is that it doesn’t allow for many opportunities for cliffhangers. That’s something I definitely have to work on: hooking the reader to want to keep reading, not only just to see where these characters’ lives go.
Thanks for the comment!