How Long Is It?

 How long is ... what?

How Long Is It?

by Joyce Melton

Someone asked me, as a writer and editor, how long a chapter of a novel should be. My rule of thumb is a chapter or a short story should be about 3500 words, give or take a few thousand.

For me, a chapter is a conceptual unit -- I actually think of longer works in chapters. Well, there's the book or work itself, next smaller is the arc which may be one or several chapters but is usually 3 or 4, and chapters themselves are divided into scenes or vignettes.

An arc often has the structure of a story itself, but not always. Arcs take the action to major turning points in the stories, usually where the characters make some important decision or discovery. An arc can actually be longer than one book if you're writing a series of books.

A chapter holds the amount of information I want to group together in the reader's mind and usually ends with a pageturner and begins with a hook, it's analogous to a paragraph. A pageturner is a question or impetus that needs resolution. A hook is a very vivid scene that pulls the reader's consiousness into the story. A pageturner grabs the emotions of the reader, a hook grabs the senses.

A vignette is a mini-story within the story except a vignette is usually just a beginning or just a middle of a story. A scene is a sequence of story built around a particular locale or action.

Another unit is the view, which is used almost entirely in multi-viewpoint or omniscient viewpoint stories to mark changes in the viewpoint character (who the viewpoint character is). This can be used in first person narratives but it's tricky to do that and should not be attempted without a net; ask your editor if she has one. A view may be a part of a scene or vignette or may be as long as an arc; it's a contextual unit, not a structural unit.

Since I don't usually outline stories except in my head, these divisions are very fluid until I've got them down in black and white.

After I've written the story, I go back and see if any of the changes in direction the story takes are too abrupt or too slow and I adjust the pace by lengthening or shortening scenes or vignettes, usually by inserting or taking out description. I check for story logic and consistency and I make sure that my hooks and pageturners have the proper amount of grab.

These actions may make the chapters come out very different lengths than my "ideal" 3500 words which they actually usually are while I'm writing. I constantly highlight various sections of the story and check the word count of that section. I don't like an arc to be longer than about one third of the whole work or shorter than 10000 words, and scenes shorter than 300 words or so are going to feel like slamcuts in a movie. Sometimes I want a slamcut or even a series of them, short choppy scenes change the reader's perception of story time.

Changes of view are even more like slamcuts, so I check those to see if they are actually needed for story flow, dramatic intensity or plotting and if they aren't, I rewrite them. This can mean rewriting an entire arc which is a pain and I've usually fixed the problem before I get to rewrite. Either that or abandoned the story.

The things that cause me to abandon stories are usually plotting mistakes. I don't plot much ahead of time, it's my weak point. The three plotting mistakes I generally make I call, "plotting myself over a cliff," "plotting my way to China," and "plotting myself into a tuna can." I'll leave it to you to imagine what I mean by those.; background-repeat: repeat-y; font-size: 1px; background-position: 50% 0%; ">; background-repeat: repeat-y; font-size: 1px; background-position: 50% 0%; "> 



Novel length

According to various stuff I've seen, about the minimum length for a (publishable as) novel is 60k words. That's what I always aim for. A novella is, if memory serves, up to about 30k words. Or was it 20? I'm drunk, so not really thinking clearly.

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