By how much can chapters in a novel vary in length?
I’ve come across a lot of novels-in-progress in which chapter lengths are all over the place. I’ve seen novels where Chapter One is 10,000 words, Chapter Two is 1,000 words, Chapter Three is 1,200 words and Chapter Four is 15,000 words …
When the variation in chapter length is this extreme, it can negatively affect the reader’s experience of the rhythm of the story.
Readers like to put down a book where there’s a break in the story.
It can be a bit frustrating if a scene goes on for too long, because readers don’t want to stop in the middle of the action.
And if a reader has to read a scene in more than one session, this can impact the effectiveness of that scene because emotional build-up can be lost or the reader might forget some important information from earlier in the scene.
Sometimes, the fix is easy. If you have more than one scene per chapter, you can simply shuffle around where the chapter breaks occur.
However, sometimes this won’t work if there are deeper underlying issues.
Perhaps there’s a bigger issue with the overall structure of the novel – patterns relating to the number of scenes, the lengths of scenes, the viewpoint each scene is experienced through or the story thread it relates to, etc.
Or perhaps the scenes themselves need refinement – the handling of information, action, dialogue, description, and so on – this in turn effecting the length of each scene, or whether you cut or merge scenes.
As with everything related to novel-writing technique, there are no hard and fast rules.
When it comes down to it, the ‘right’ length for a chapter will depend on the book – but I recommend not letting your chapter lengths very too dramatically.
Give your readers a wild ride when it comes to your story, but not when it comes to the flow of their reading experience.