It’s what we all think, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter whether you’re reading a book or writing one, the end of the next chapter is where you know you can safely put the story aside and take a break.
If you’re reading then it might be when you turn out the light/get off the train/finish your meal.
If you’re writing then it’s probably when you breathe a sigh of relief, get up from your desk and head for a cup of tea while thinking, ‘that went OK’. Or maybe, ‘that might need revisiting tomorrow, but at least I can take a break now’.
This is why chapters matter. They are part of the structure of almost all books other than dictionaries or books for toddlers. I know, I know, Terry Pratchett didn’t have chapters and his books did alright. There will always be exceptions, although he did write in sections, he just didn’t flag them with headings and page breaks.
Chapters are the signposts that allow us to navigate our way through books that might otherwise seem daunting. Where to stop if there is no chapter ending? How to convey the dramatic flourish of a cliffhanger ending, or the sweet invitation of an opening line, if not for chapters. They offer the opportunity for transitions and for breaks in which to digest the story so far.
If you are writing a book then just as important as the inclusion of chapters is the length of your chapters. Too long and you will test your reader to their limit, daring them not to give up when they realise that they’re halfway through a chapter and there’s another hour to go. This is not a wise dare, too often you will lose.
Some writers opt for very short chapters, perhaps a page or two, and this can work, but only in the right kind of story. It’s often used for quirky, funny books with an upbeat tempo, but use with caution, because mini-chapters can frustrate when you want a sense of substance.
So what length should your chapters be? Long enough to engage the reader, to keep your story flowing and yet short enough to allow for plenty of pause points, as well as endings and beginnings that add interest.
According to the experts, and most successful books, the length of a chapter should sit comfortably between 1,500 and 5000 words. And most will peak at a sweet spot of between 3000 and 4000 words.
A chapter of, say, 3500 words, takes between 10 and 25 minutes to read. A bit longer if, like me, you are a leisurely reader who likes to re-read segments, or to stop and picture the characters and events. A comfortable half-hour, which fits nicely into one’s day.
I picked up a book the other day that had no chapters, just non-stop words for a couple of hundred pages. After thinking about it for a bit, I put it down and picked up another one that had nice clear chapters. Because, dear reader, reading a book without chapters is like traversing a desert without oases. Not to be recommended.