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What is a Chapter? [Chapter Breakdown Guide]

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What is a Chapter?

A Guide on Chapter Breakdown


First, let me preface this by saying that I realize that not everyone thinks of a chapter in the same way that I am about to present it. It's totally fine if, when you're reading, you feel as if you still prefer to continuing your chaptering method as you please. I find that in the writing community, there are so many methods of doing different things (from worldbuilding to character development to outlining to chaptering) and it really comes down to what is going to work best for you, as the writer (I sound like a broken record, if you've ever stumbled across any of my writing guides, haha)! 

Also, I just want to say that I was inspired to write this guide because of +this post  ["Help... I have a problem with word count"] as it revolved around different opinions on how long a chapter should be. I realize that I touched on breaking your story arch down into chapters in +Planning Your Novel, but I never really got into HOW I go about doing that. So, here we are, with me and my little 'e' expert pants on [because I am in no way, shape, or form a bit 'e' Expert on anything other than procrastination (see me writing a guide during NaNo)]. And by little 'e' expert pants, I mean pyjama bottoms, because I have yet to get dressed today. 


First and foremost! 

What is a Chapter?

What constitutes a chapter? Is it a word count? Is it a completed action? A plot point? What is it that makes a chapter a chapter? I mean, Google says that a chapter is "a main division of a book, typically with a number or title" which is clearly oh-so-helpful (thanks, Google, you're the best). 

In theory, you could say that a chapter is made up of several scenes (or ONE event or action) that work together to create a point, or to set up a particular moment. However, sometimes chapters are just ONE scene. That doesn't mean that the scene is a short scene and therefore results in a short chapter -- sometimes, a "scene" can be a few thousand words long because something critical is happening. And, sometimes it is a short chapter, made up of one short scene. Also, sometimes a chapter is quite long (like 10,000 words long), because the author decided that everything in that chapter was crucial to be in that chapter

So, again, that's not entirely helpful.  I think we can draw from it is that something "important" or "relevant" to your plot or characters happens in a chapter.

But what about filler chapters? 

Well, when we think of story fillers, we are thinking of "unnecessary" text to keep the story moving, meaning that if you removed that portion of the text, the reader could still understand the story and the story would be unaffected. I mean, in my personal opinion, I would never dedicate an entire chapter to filler. That does not make filler chapters wrong in any way, shape, or form, of course -- it's just my opinion. I also am not a fan of unnecessary imagery, large piles of information and backstory, and garrulous paragraphs that could be broken up into smaller paragraphs. That's just how I like to write and read -- I like things to be trim. And that's not to say that I have never enjoyed a filler chapter or that any of these things are necessarily bad, it's just my opinion. For instance, I also don't like steak but that doesn't make steak bad (do you see what I'm trying to say here?).

Taking my opinion out of it, I suppose it would then be that transitional text between the two points of the chapters before and after it, so that it makes the connection or transition. 

Then we take word count into consideration. Some people are put off by "short" chapters, while others are put off by "long" chapters, and you can see my full opinion on chapters length in the first link I posted, but I'll summarize here. When taking into account that a chapter is meant to be comprised of "several scenes" that will ultimately work together to create a centralized point or event or moment. Using that theory, a chapter can be any actual word count you want it to be, which is frightening to think about. Now, I know people aren't going around writing 50K word chapters on the daily because that's a lot to ask of a chapter (and of a reader). That would also mean that one-scene chapters (no matter what the length), would not be the way to go. 

And I very much disagree with that point. But do we ignore this guideline and focus solely on word count, though?

If so, what is the appropriate word count for a chapter?

Well, I didn't know, so I typed it into Google and it's pretty much an opinion game. Most sites give ranges of 2,000 to 5,000 words per chapter, 3,000 to 5,000 words, or 4,000 to 5,000 words, and one even took a large number of bestselling books and came up with an average of, 4,280 words. What I found most interesting about ALL these numbers from all these sites was that none of the ranges dipped below 2,000 words, and none of the sites ranged above 5,000 words (calling their ranges or averages the "sweet spot").

But why? What is so off-putting about shorter and longer chapters? 

So when we look at some famous authors who are notorious for breaking the mold, so-to-speak. James Patterson is well-known for his thrillers, which consist almost exclusively of short chapters. As for authors of chapters that are longer than 5,000 words, just pick up a J.R.R. Tolkein book ;) .

 Taking all numbers and ranges from these websites into account, we might say that 3,500 is a typical average chapter. (Er...or at least pretend that's what it is for the sake of the following argument, thanks!)

So, then, do we just write until we hit 3,500 words? 

Not in my opinion. There has to be SOMETHING other than word count that makes a chapter. Which brings us right back to the first point, that I also did not agree with. 

:/ What then? 

It is my opinion that there has to be a balance between the two. There has to be a POINT to your chapter (whether to move the plot forward, create conflict, resolve conflict, do some character development, whatever), but I also don't believe in 50,000-word chapters (and I'll tell you why in a second). In fact, I'm more apt to believe in a 1k chapter than a 11k chapter and its ability to carry a plot point. It's not that I mind reading an 11k chapter, but there was a time when I did, especially as a younger reader. 

I've already told you that, while reading, I don't like a lot of unnecessary information and fluff and fat. When faced with an extremely long chapter, I often feel as if the chapter can be broken up and trimmed down, and there always feels as if there is a ton of extra information or detail in the text to buff up word count for no other reason than to buff up word count. And that's not to say that that theory is true and, if it is, that it's wrong in any way. Some readers like to read long, detailed chapters (but that's not me). I find as if the point of the chapter gets lost in it all. Or I find that there are more than one "points" or events occurring in the chapter.

Again, not wrong, just not my style. (Which is surprising, because I'm a rambler as you can probably tell.)

There is most generally a natural transitioning point in very long chapters (even without trimming out the fat) where a chapter can be broken into two chapters. I totally get where an author would not like to do that, and where they would like to keep their chapter together -- it's just a personal preference. 

And there are some people who are put off by shorter chapters. I can understand where some people would think it's difficult to fulfil plot points in a very short chapter. And, sometimes, short chapters can be missing the meat that makes a story interesting (character development, some level of description, interaction, follow-through -- things that bring a reader into a story). There are many reasons to write short chapters. James Patterson is notorious for his short chapters [sometimes between two and three pages, though I can't give you the exact word count], though I've yet to find an issue with his worldbuilding or plot. If done right, there can an even be an advantage to plot-building in short chapters. Especially in the case of using short chapters in excess, there is a significant advantage to pacing that can be established. Taking it back to Patterson, who writes thrillers, short chapters with a faster pace can help build a sense of excitement and suspense that add to that thriller element. Longer chapters, of course, can work with the opposite effect. They can slow down the pace, which can allow the reader to soak in a particular situation, theme, or event further, and allows the author ample time to establish elements. 

So, I do think that chapter creation has to do with a balance between word count and PURPOSE, and that word count can vary for effect. It also comes down to personal preference. If you don't like writing chapters longer than 2k, or if you don't like writing chapters under 7k, then honey, do your thing. 

However, for the purpose of the chapter breakdown, I'm going to be taking MY personal writing preference. That is an average of 3,000 words with a purpose. I have this THING with chapters, where I find a chapter to be a good point of transition -- a resting point -- where readers can take a break and absorb what they've just read (or absorb what I've just read when reading someone else's work). 

How to Break a Story Down Into Chapters -- Rumpel-style. 

Okay, so there are multiple ways to break your story down. Some people write their entire story down first and then chapter later. I cannot even grasp the concept of writing scene-to-scene for an entire story without breaking it down and taking a BREAK, so I won't be showing that method

In the second link in the introduction, you can see how I plan novels/multi-chaptered works. In that guide I plan chapter outlines LAST. So, in essence, you can say I break down my chapters during the planning stages. I first plan my entire story (not write it, though), and then break the plot points down into chapters. 

Now, the method I can show you is based off of having my story already plotted out. I can't show you how to break your chapters down if you're writing as you go without some sort of plotting or outlining done, because I don't know how to do that. This method also relies on how well you know yourself as a writer. 

Step One: Look at the plot points

Okay so you've got your general plot points (that you've broken down into even more points if you use a method similar to mine), so you have the general outline of your story. LOOK at those points and try to break them into pieces. In example, points ABCD should go together, points EFG should go together, etc. Of course, this is taking into account you're running a linear plot. If you're running a nonlinear plotline, you should first arrange your points in the order that they occur in the story before grouping them.

Step Two: Know your writing

This one is a little more difficult and is going to come with some practice. I can generally look at a plot point and know about how many words its going to take to make the point happen. :/ It's going to take a little trial-and-error and adjusting if you're plotting chapter outlines, but it doesn't take long before you're able to feel it out. 

Step Three: Point pairings and word count

Now, you're going to take the first two steps and combine it with about how many words you want in your chapter. For me, that's approximately 3,000 words. Now, I know that I can put 3 or 4 minor points together to reach around 3,000 words, but that may not be the case for everyone. Sometimes, for example, only two out of four plot points that I want to pair together fit into 3,000-4,000 words. 

Step Four: Break it down

If points A&B = 3,000 words and points C&D = 1,500 words, I will make a 4,500-word chapter. However, if points A&B = 3,000 words and points C&D = 3,000 words, I will try to find a natural transitioning point between points B and C to break them into two chapters because it doubles my approximate chapter word count goal. And that's my general rule of chapter breakdown. Now if I find that point C HAS to be with points A&B, but D can stand on its own or with the next set of points, then I'll make exceptions to word counts. 


\O/ And that's pretty much it! The most difficult parts are, of course, knowing how many words I want per chapter, and being able to recognize about how many points I want per chapter.

Feel free to share YOUR chapter breakdown methods below and/or your opinions on word count or what makes up a chapter ^_^ .

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