...In other words, how to saw your book into itty bitty, bite-sized pieces.
Post inspired by Bill, who asked the questions on a certain sauce-filled forum group. I was going to respond to his request for suggestions there but asked myself, "Why respond just there when I can drag out Tami's soapbox and pontificate to the crickets here, instead?"
Lo and behold, a post was born.
(It's a girl).
Chapters and why we need em:
Think about eating a bowl of spaghetti.
...You're not really feeling it, are you? Let me add some details so that we can set the scene here.
Think about...putting together all of the ingredients for spaghetti, right? You get your big pot and you brown up some ground beef. You slice up some mushrooms, throw in two cans of sauce as well as a can of diced tomatoes. Add in some meatballs, some spices and maybe even some broccoli if you're feeling adventurous.
You let that shit simmer till all of the flavors are all blended together and the smell is wafting through the entire house. You cook up a ton of noodles, enough to feed a freaking village.
You heap noodles onto the plate and you ladle out a steaming portion of that glorious spaghetti sauce.
You sit down at the table, dig in with your fork and start eating...but you can't bite off a mouthful of noodles. That's no problem, right? You can just slurp at your noodles until you reach the end and then chew all of that deliciousness altogether.
...Except it doesn't end. You slurp and slurp but the noodles don't have an end to them and no matter how hard you try, you can't cut or bite off the portion in your mouth. You're forced to just add more and more noodles into your mouth till your cheeks are bulging and your gag reflex is kicking in. A sheen of sweat pops out on your forehead but there's still no end in sight.
That? That's how it feels to read a book without chapters.
How much is a good mouthful?
The question we're asking ourselves now is where to drop in these chapter breaks.
Too much at a time and you'll give your reader an uncomfortably full feeling. Too little and they'll get frustrated, lose interest.
You definitely don't want that.
First thing to take into account is that you don't want to be perfectly formulaic when it comes to chapter length...but you don't want to vary in a huge fashion either.
Every mouthful of delicious spaghetti isn't going to have the exact same weight and heft to it...but it should be in the same ballpark. Don't be afraid to extend your chapter by 200-300 words when something exciting is happening that just can't wait...but if you find yourself extending a chapter into or past the 400-500 word range, you may want to go back and take a hard look at how the pacing of your novel is working.
Keep in mind, I have totally been guilty of this. But it takes someone who's been burned to preach about the dangers of fire, am I right?
In a recent story I'd written involving dragons, the second last segment of the story (the climactic battle) was easily 50%-60% longer than any other segment in the story.
I felt that I didn't have a choice in the matter due to the format of the story and the limitations...but re-reading it again later made me really feel that sudden extra length.
Whenever possible, try to avoid this.
Keep in mind as well that too short is usually just as bad. It can leave your reader feeling like they've just stepped off a moving walkway.
Do not let your reader stumble.
Wafting them from breeze to breeze on spaghetti-fuelled dreams is the name of the game here.
How to end chapters:
The last line of a chapter should either force the reader to turn and start the next chapter immediately, or it should give them a satisfying stopping point.
I'll provide an example of each of these types of chapter ends and, conveniently, they both rise from the mind of our dear Authoress ;)
This is an example of a chapter ending that just about grabs you by the lapels and forces you to turn that page.
Granted...at the time, there WAS no next page and much teeth gnashing was had by all... >.>"
But all the same? It's got that sense of immediacy. It's got a feeling that shit is about to go DOWN and you'd be crazy to miss it. Just turn the page. Turn it. Yeah...you start that next chapter...
This is a good way to end a chapter.
But you run into the problem of having too much of a good thing. You can't just have nothing but climaxes in your story. Every single chapter can't end with a page turner.
I know, they're fantastic and they're great when done well, but at the same time, if EVERY chapter ended that way, you lose a lot of the impact.
What you WANT is to deliver a couple of quick jabs and follow that up with a haymaker. What you DON'T want is to throw nothing but haymakers all the time.
Doing so will exhaust you as you rack your brain, trying to constantly throw your main characters into the fire. You'll also exhaust your reader if they're there along with your characters as they stagger from TERRIFYING CLIMACTIC DILEMMA! to HORRIBLE CATACLYSMIC CATASTROPHE!
Something like this is a good example of a more quiet chapter ending. There's definitely still a bit of, "so what happens next?" but it's not as immediate. Which makes it a great place to put the story down for a while and pick it up later when I feel like reading again.
So what constitutes a bite-sized chunk?
The length of each chapter really comes down to the length of the overall piece, as well as what kind of story you're telling. Some stories are more suited to shorter, more punchy chapters while others benefit more from long, rambling lengths to impart that sense of a lot of shit happening (yes, that's totally the technical and professional term for it).
For a regular-sized novel, I feel that anywhere from 2500-4000 word chunks comprise nice breaks for chapters.
That sort of length is just enough to get a nice chewy, mouthful of spaghetti, but not enough to feel like the author is trying to choke me with their words.
Just keep in mind that the way you end off each chapter is likely more important than a rote, uniform LENGTH to your chapters.
Making the post a friendly one:
*Steps down off Tami's soapbox and tucks it away for safekeeping under the table.*
So what kind of chapter lengths do you like better? The short and punchy ones? Or the long, rambly ones?
Do you love the cliffhanger endings? Or do they make you want to go out and strangle authoresses who maybe got you hooked on them but then totally never finished the story and left the fates of a bunch of characters up in the air and you feel like you'll never know and you totally still want to meet some of the villains that were hinted and teased at and what the hell happens to Remora at the end anyway?
....*cough, I mean...uh...