Thursday, May 10, 2012

Chapter lengths, bigger plots, and other good stuff

by Stephanie Morrill

I've had a flood of questions come in (which inevitably happens whenever I'm making a final push to get a manuscript done, and I'm in my not-touching-email-not-doing-laundry-just-focusing-on-writing zone) so I thought I'd take some time to play catch up and answer them here.

How long should chapters be?

The good news is, there's no hard and fast rule - yay!

The bad news is, that means it's hard to gauge if you're doing it correctly.

My chapters tend to range from 2,000 to 4,000 words with one or more scene breaks. Chapters are really just kind of a "do it by feel" type thing. They can set the cadence for your book. A literary novel like A Passion for Mary-Margaret might have longer chapters than, say, The DaVinci Code.

I know many authors who don't even bother with chapter breaks during the first draft. so don't get too hung up on it. It's an easy thing to fix.

Do you have any advice on filler? I've got several major points, but not sure what to tie them all together with. It's weird because my main character is a teenager, and I'm a teenager, so I should totally know how to fill up his free time, but I don't...

My biggest advice for this is it shouldn't feel like filler. Back when I had the joy of watching a new episode of 24 every week, there was the occasional episode that I would walk away from thinking, "That felt like filler. They worked all episode to solve a problem only to discover it didn't matter."

You don't want to fill your book up with scenes that don't matter, but it IS possible that your character needs a hobby. Or that it's time to throw some more obstacles at them. What would make it harder for them to achieve their goal? Can the antagonist be more active? Can a love interest complicate things? Can you toss in a ticking clock?

Do you have any suggestions for when you think of a great idea, but you can't seem to develop a whole story from it?

Yes! That exercise I linked to above is a really good one to get you thinking about your story in a new way.

Also, I wrote a post about brainstorming and "composting" a couple weeks ago that you might find helpful.

I think the important thing to realize is that ideas that sustain a full length novel take work. And it takes pushing yourself to find greater stakes, deeper characters, and more complex settings. How can you make the character's goal harder to achieve? What will they be asked to sacrifice? What is one thing they think they won't do ... yet what kind of circumstances will entice them to do it? Those kinds of questions can really help flesh out a story.

How long should dramatic scenes last?

Well, I think they'll vary depending on what kind of drama we're referring to. I think a good, general rule about dramatic scenes is to arrive late and leave early. By which I mean, don't make the reader sift through all the set up and description of the scene, just jump right in. And we don't need to be around your main character as she cries for 30 minutes after being dumped. You can end with the scumbag walking out the door, and then slip it into a later scene that she did some crying afterward.

Jill talked about writing action/fight scenes a few weeks ago, so if we're talking about that kind of drama, you can check out that post. She also talked about writing a "great war," which is a great reference for all those epic battles.

Again, this is similar to what I initially said about chapter length. There are no hard and fast rules, which is great ... but it makes it harder to know if you're doing it well.

Have a writing question? I'm always happy to answer them! Email me here.

And if you're interested in scoring a copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (and why wouldn't you be?) teen writer Taylor Lynn is giving away a copy on her (darling) blog. Get thee entered.

Jill will be here tomorrow talking about testing your character's personality types using Meyer-Briggs. I'm super excited! See y'all back here for that.


  1. Oh cool! My question was on here!
    Thanks Stephanie!

  2. Personality testing! Sounds excitig to me!

    Thank you so much!

  3. Go Stephanie, Go! I'm cheering you on :)

  4. Thank you so much for answering my question, even in your busiest of times! Good luck with your manuscript!

  5. Yikes, sounds like you're pretty busy, double thank you for spreading the word about my giveaway! I really appreciate it, and because of your help a whole bunch of aspiring authors have already entered. Thank you so much!

    These are good questions and answers, by the way. My chapters tend to be pretty short most of the time, and I'm hoping to lengthen them by adding detail and substance once I get to revision, but it's helpful to know that yours aren't dauntingly long, either. It makes me feel like mine aren't as wimpy as they seem. ;) Thanks!

    I wish you the very best of luck with your manuscript, too! GO STEPHANIE! :)

  6. PS I'm glad you like my blog! :) Hugs!

  7. I was stunned when K.M. Weiland mentioned in Outlining Your Novel that she doesn't break her ms into scenes until after the first draft. Like, what? Now that the shock has worn off, I can see how that would be helpful, but I haven't yet tried it.

    In my first two novels, the chapters are on the long side (20 pages). In my WIP (with which I'm finally coming to the place where the writing flows ~ at last!) I've gotten quite mathematical with my chapter breaks. I'm alternating between two first-person POVs and each chapter is 10 pages because my outline lists 20 chapters and I want the finished product to be my longest completed novel and come in at 400 pages. We'll see how long that lasts. I am trying to throw in a three-page chapter every once in a while, though, so it doesn't feel too structured. It should get easier as things move along. :)

    Thank you for not abandoning us in your busy writing time, Stephanie! We rank higher than even emails and laundry? Whoa.

    1. Lol, Rachelle. You guys beat out both email and laundry any day of the week :)

    2. Awwww . . . Yeah, my chapters are really long, being anywhere from 5k to 8k. My last two are about 1.5k, so I've got to fix that. Right now, I have exactly eleven chapters, so I have a lot of adding to do. Do you have any suggestions for good editing books?

    3. I really like Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell:

      I hear a lot of people say good things about Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I found it a little dry, but I'm a big James Scott Bell fan, so I might just be prejudice :)

  8. This is great! I really need to bump up my wordcount, but I don't want my book to be boring and the reader to feel like I'm stalling for most of it! Do you have any tips, Stephanie?