How to Write Chapters That Captivate Readers
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So, chapters. It occurred to me the other week that I’d yet to talk about them here on Well-Storied, despite the fact that I’ve been running this show for well over two years now. How could I have skipped something so crucial to the structure of a good novel? I'll be honest. For a long time, I didn't consider chapters to be all that important.
Chapters give your novel structure, sure. But over the years, I've come to realize that that's not all they do. Chapters also create a sense of pacing, of forward momentum, and — if you play your cards just right — a sense of page-turning urgency.
Chapter breaks aren’t just places for readers to stick their bookmarks. They’re an opportunity for you, the author, to further captivate them! So how can you make sure you’re writing captivating chapters in your own novel? Today, I’m going to break this topic down by answering five of your most popular chapter questions. Let’s go!
How long should chapters be?
Too short and you may not captivate readers. Too long and you may lose their interest. Finding that perfect Goldilocks length for your chapters may seem tough, but it doesn't have to be! When it comes to literature, standard chapter lengths typically fall between 1,000 and 5,000 words. That’s roughly four to twenty printed pages, with each page containing a standard 250 words.
Are there mega popular books with shorter chapters? Sure. Take a look at many of James Patterson’s books. Any fan favorites that have super long chapters? Of course! Many fantasy and sci-fi books have longer chapters, most notably the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to chapter lengths, and there will always be successful exceptions to industry standards. That said, most readers prefer books with moderately-long chapters, roughly 6 to 10 pages or 1,500 to 2,500 words in length.
(I conducted a Twitter poll a loooong time ago to get the above data. Roughly 50 readers weighed in and I wrote these results down, but silly me never noted the link so I could cite it. Sorry, friends!)
If you’re trying to decide how long your own chapters should be, I suggest combing through a few popular books in your genre and age market. How long are the chapters? How many chapters are there in the book as a whole? You don’t have to follow the data you collect, but it’s an excellent baseline for knowing what your readers will likely anticipate when picking up your book.
Should all chapters be the same length?
Generally speaking, yes. Having consistent chapter lengths creates a strong sense of pacing. It allows readers to fall into a rhythm and encourages them to keep turning pages.
That said, there are instances where it’s okay to alter the length of a chapter. The key is to do so sparingly, so the change in length actually makes a meaningful impact. Remember folks, everything in your novel must serve a purpose. So what are these special instances?
#1: Barreling Toward the Climactic Sequence.
As you gear up for the big showdown, you may find yourself naturally increasing or decreasing the length of your chapters. Decreasing chapter length actually increases the pace of your story, so employing this during your story’s climactic sequence can add to the suspense and urgency of your storytelling. Pretty cool, right?
Alternatively, you may make your chapters longer in order to fit all the action happening during your story’s climax, and that’s okay too. Lengthening chapters can help engross readers in your story's climax since there aren’t any chapter breaks to steal their attention.
#2: Changing Point-of-View.
You may also wish to change the length of your chapters when briefly visiting the point-of-view of a secondary character. For example, in V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows, both the antagonist and his sidekick have a few POV chapters throughout the story, and nearly all of them are much shorter than the main characters’ chapters.
Shortening chapter lengths in this instance allows writers to give readers a quick peek into an alternative plot line or POV. This creates dramatic irony — when readers know something the characters do not — which in turn builds suspense. Pretty nifty trick, right?
How many scenes should be included in each chapter?
Again, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to structuring your chapters. Both the length of your chapters and the narrative choices you make as an author will affect how many scenes you include in each chapter. That said, anywhere from one to five scenes per chapter is fairly common. The good news? You don’t have to worry as much about consistency here!
Sometimes scenes are lengthy. Other times they’re quick bites of pertinent info. As long as the pacing of your chapters is on point, you don’t have to worry about whether you’re using the same number of scenes in each one.
Can you switch POV characters during a chapter?
By starting a new chapter every time you switch point-of-view characters, you negate the risk of confusing readers, which is pretty awesome if you ask me. However, switching POV characters mid-chapter can be done successfully.
The key to switching POV characters mid-chapter is to be absolutely clear about the fact that you are switching POVs. This typically means utilizing a scene break (i.e. skipping a line to indicate that one scene — or POV — has ended and another has begun).
A few things to keep in mind...
Switching heads in a chapter typically makes the most narrative sense at the halfway point, where the first half of your chapter features one POV character and the second half another. The duality of this approach is easy for readers to digest.
Another natural point to switch POVs occurs at the very end of a chapter, typically within the last few lines. This usually occurs when authors want to create dramatic irony (giving readers knowledge that the characters don’t have in order to build suspense).
For example, imagine that an entire chapter is told through the POV character, Henry, as he steals money from the company safe. Then, imagine the last few lines of the chapter switch to the POV of Henry’s secretary, whom Henry doesn’t realize has just witnessed his crime.
See how that creates suspense? Readers will likely feel the immediate urge to turn the page to find out what happens next!
How can you create exciting chapter endings?
Every chapter ending leaves readers with an ultimatum. Do they continue reading or do they shut the book? It’s your job as the author to convince them to continue on. The easiest way to captivate readers is with a cliffhanger, right? Stop the scene in the middle of the action and readers are forced to continue reading.
Well, it turns out that ending too many chapters with a cliffhanger can feel contrived and gimmicky. You don’t want readers to feel like you’re trying to push them along. You want them to be so invested in your story that they don't even question turning the page. But how?
Make sure your main character remains unsatisfied. Strange advice, right? Hear me out. With any luck, you’ve already created a strong connection between your reader and your main character. The reader was able to stick themselves in the main character’s shoes and now they've been sucked into the story.
If you've done this successfully, putting your main character in a tense and unsatisfied position at the end of each chapter will always leave your readers wanting more. You've created an itch, and now your readers will want to scratch it. But what do I mean when I talk about dissatisfaction? Anything really!
Any of these struggles can leave your main character in a place of deep dissatisfaction — think: anger, frustration, confusion, hurt, pain, and so on — and your readers, too!
Just remember that you don’t need to cut every chapter off in the middle of a major conflict. Use those cliffhanger moments sparingly, specifically in places where your story's conflict could use a little boost, and they’ll serve a much more powerful purpose.
Are you ready to write captivating chapters?
As I said a few times throughout the article, there are no true defined rules when it comes to structuring your novel’s chapters. That’s pretty much how most things work when it comes to writing, actually! But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few norms your readers are already accustomed to.
Your book may be the exception, but in most cases, following the basic rules we outlined today will help you write crazy awesome chapters that captivate your readers so efficiently they won’t be able to put your book down. And who doesn’t want that, right?