Story units

Choosing the right pace

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The question that was asked, by gennipherellapatterson, was how many pages should a chapter be, on a word document.

The answer to that is in two parts. First, the simple part: there is no set rule for chapter length. It can be as long, or as short, as you need it to be. For example, in Jane Yolen’s book The Wild Hunt, there are chapters that are as short as one or two sentences. It makes perfect sense, because that is what fits her pace.

Pacing is the only thing that should matter when you are dividing your chapters. Pacing is the general rhythm of a story, which can be defined simply by the ratio of actions per time spent. When something is described as “fast-paced”, as, for example, The Hunger Games or Die Hard, this simply means that the ratio is high, and there are many actions in a short amount of time. In things that are called slow paced, such as War and Peace, or the works of Jane Austen, the ratio is low, and the actions are spread out over long periods of time.

A fast-paced plot bounces the characters around a lot, and allows very little time for deep psychological exploration, and as a result, the characters end up being changed minimally. Slower paced plots, on the other hand, often concentrate on the character’s development first and foremost, and allow for deep exploration of psychology, relationships, etc.

What does all that have to do with chapter length, you ask?

It’s actually simple. As a general rule of thumb, to reflect a faster pace, your chapters will be shorter; for a slower pace, they will be more lengthy. This adds to the impression of speed or slowness that the reader gets; the chapters are the most recognizable segments, or “chunks”, of your novel; if the reader goes through many “chunks” in a short amount of time, he or she will feel that the story is moving ahead very fast; if it takes a long time, they will feel it is moving more slowly.

Now for the final, technical, and probably most practical answer to your question, which is really, how do I know I’ve finished a chapter and can move on to the next one?

Stories are assembled units of time. Before I go into explaining those, I just have to take a quick moment to explain (extremely basically) the three-act classical structure. Very, very quickly and basically, each story is divided into three basic parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Simply put, the beginning of a story establishes a situation, the middle modifies it a little, or puts a twist on it, if you will, and the end concludes it, usually in a surprising manner. This three act structure is not only found in the overall story, but it is found in all of its smaller components, or what I like to call units of storytelling. The smallest of these units is the scene. A scene, simply put, is one continuous unit of time. In movies, it is also ruled by place; when the characters move from one place to another, a new scene happens. However, in books, this is really determined by time. When you have a continuous, uninterrupted action, you have one scene; the scene is over when you move to a different time. I will have a post about the scene later on; mastering writing the scene among the most important skills you can have when writing, if not the most important. What should be remembered, at this stage, is that each scene is like a miniature story in itself, and should have a beginning, a middle, and an end; every scene should also present a plot point, or a unit of information about the story.

A chapter can be a single scene, but more often than not, it is made of several scenes strung together. The chapter will also present the mini-structure of beginning, middle, and end. Most importantly, though, every chapter should contain one, and only one MAJOR plot point. There is an essential difference between minor plot points and major ones; while minor points simply provide necessary information, major ones are usually emotionally charged in some way. And yes, there should be only one per chapter; a reader should be able to sum up a chapter by saying “that’s the chapter when this (being your major plot point) happens”. A story, even fast-paced, should have a certain ebb and flow; the tension builds, and then relaxes, only to build again. It gives time for the readers to digest what just happened and prepare for the next major plot point. And yes, that can actually mean that as your story builds towards its climax, and things are getting emotional, chapters might get shorter to reflect that. After all, if things get tenser, shouldn’t a change of pace reflect that?

This is how chapter length is calculated. Not in pages, but in plot points, or units of story.

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