Chapters are strange creatures, used to divide up books into more manageable chunks. They mostly exist for those who have enough self-control not to read a whole novel in a sitting but they also serve to keep the reader in the story, prevent information overload, and help the author to adjust the pacing of the story and create suspense.
Since they create and maintain rhythm to the book, length matters. Shorter chapters give a more staccato feel, increasing tension, but longer chapters can slow the pace. Chapters tend to fall somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 words but the honest truth is that there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to length. There are a ton of articles out there that will tell you how to write a first or last chapter but very few to instruct you on the in-between.
The length of your chapters will depend on your story and what you are trying to do and it will turn out that your chapters won’t all be the same length whether you like it or not. Shorter chapters speed up the action and raise tension so you may find that your chapters become shorter towards the climax of your book. On the other hand, longer chapters need more care to write because they can become rambling and unfocused if you are not careful. They are helpful for things like periods where your character is following a trail, trying to work something out, or on a journey, to make the reader feel like this is taking time but they must grip the audience and not make them feel like skipping it.
It is a difficult line to walk and requires practice. It is good to be aware when you are reading of the lengths of the chapters and how it is impacting the story, whether it works, and how you could use the technique yourself.
Internal chapter structure itself is fairly easy, much like a short story except that you don’t have to tie up as many loose ends. It should begin with a purpose or direction, a question that needs to be answered. For example, there is a chapter in Aurelius where it begins with Maia staring out at the snow and wondering if everybody gets happy endings. The immediate question is, will she? In context, this is a much more tense and heavy chapter than it might sound.
The second step is to develop it in a satisfying way. There must be tension and usually progress. The Captain of her father’s guard (who has a reputation for being heartless and ruthless) comes to sit with her and it turns out that he knows everything that has happened. Tension rises. Then he asks her what she would like him to do.
It’s looking like the answer to the original question is that no, Maia will not be getting a happy ending and that ending might be a whole lot sooner than she expected. Ending a chapter is the hardest part because you need to pick your moment. Too soon and the chapter will feel cut off. Too late, and the reader won’t feel too much urgency to carry on. The chapter in Aurelius ends with the Captain offering Maia a way out. She asks him why he’s offering to help and he simply says it is because he may have no feelings but he knows wrong when he sees it. The chapter ends there, without Maia giving an answer but it works because if it had ended with the offer of help, it would not make sense to the reader, they need to understand why he offers at all. However, if it ended with Maia’s answer, they could breathe a sigh of relief and put the book down, that would be finishing the chapter too late. Instead, I tell the reader why the offer is made from this terrible guy and leave them to wonder what Maia will say because now they have to keep reading to find out. It’s not a cliff hanger per se but it’s enough that they will wonder and worry for her.
The chapter itself is only 563 words on the first draft, short, but sufficient to accomplish what I intended. It is unusual for me to write one scene and call it a chapter but it worked in this instance.
Most of the time you will find several scenes in a chapter but with a common thread (usually a goal or conflict) running through them. Chapters need to begin with a problem and develop in a satisfying way. This development doesn’t have to be happy or satisfying for the character (more often than not, it shouldn’t be) but it does have to move the story forward either through one scene or a combination of scenes. Use single scenes sparingly but always leave the reader with either a question or a nagging doubt at the end of the chapter. It doesn’t have to be on the scale of ‘Oh my fur and whiskers, they’re going to die’, something as simple and irksome as ‘why is he so cagey about the rabbit’ is quite sufficient. Never leave them with an excuse not to keep reading.
In the end, it is the story that matters. There is no sense in trying to pad out chapters that need no padding to meet a theoretical word count. On the opposite end of the spectrum, single scene chapters should be used infrequently for the best effect. Chapters are very much an artistic choice and, if it helps, write your first draft without them and see if breaks appear naturally when you read back through. I know instinctively where my chapter breaks should be as I write so I write them in but it’s not compulsory. Many of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books have no chapters at all.
The contents of the chapter matter far more than the word count. My optimum length is usually between 2,000 – 4,000 words with one or two at 1,000 or less to mess with the reader’s mind. In the end, don’t worry about the word count for your chapters,follow your gut. Read good books and get a feel for what works, and always leave at a point where there’s still something to bother your reader.
Your story matters more than the sum of its word count so make sure that each chapter contains what it needs to and doesn’t leave you in too settled a state of mind and the divisions will work regardless of length.