A novel is a difficult thing to read directly through from beginning to end. Chapter divisions form an important part of novel construction, one that governs how a reader perceives the story and instructs the reader in the best way to consume it. Effective chapter construction provides the reader with the cue he needs in order to enjoy a story. Chapters must be the right length, contain the right mix of subject matter, and control the pacing of the story. No hard and fast rule governs any one of these aspects, but there are several “best practices” that can make a chapter more or less effective.
In a novel, a chapter is a division of words arbitrarily defined by separation markings. The important word is “arbitrary” because the purpose of the chapter governs the proper length, usually defined by the mix of subject matter and the pacing of the story. A novel may place chapters at naturally occurring breaks int eh content, isolating scenes or locations while creating tension or diffusing pacing.
Content divides chapters naturally, and chapters may be thought of as a series of individual short stories that intertwine in order to form a greater whole. For the writer, this means choosing the dividing line for an individual chapter and then writing to the completion of that divider. If the divider is a particular action sequence, a chapter may start at the beginning of the action and end with the conclusion of the action. If the divider centers around a location, then all of the action that needs to occur in that location at this time should be dealt with in the chapter.
As with any short story, the beginning of the chapter introduces the important elements to the current development in the action, follow those developments as they progress, and end with the logical conclusion of those elements at this time. This allows the reader to process the scene or related set of scenes, take a break, and change mental gears before moving on to the next chapter. It reduces reader fatigue, and creates reader engagement by encouraging the reader to consider the scene he’s just finished and imagine how it is going to impact future scenes.
Chapters serve two primary purposes in regulating pacing. A chapter that immediately returns to the events of the previous chapter emphasizes the importance of those events. It should resolve lingering cliffhangers and go on to set up additional action. Lengthy action sequences and intense emotional scenes can be effectively divided into separate chapters, allowing the reader to take a mental break from the intensity and read on without “burning out”.
Chapters that change the action to a new location or set of characters inform the reader as to the pacing of the novel in one of two ways. This may take the form of a consecutive passage of time, detailing a separate series of events while unimportant details like travel, dining, or sleeping occur between scenes. The chapter division has already told the reader there was a break in time, but actual time spent reading the chapter reinforces that perception. Alternately, a chapter may occur concurrently with the previous one, allowing the writer to coordinate events in the reader’s mind without forcing him to jump between simultaneous narrations.
Finally, chapter length should be long enough that the reader feels real development has occurred in the story, but short enough to prevent reader fatigue and naturally break up the action. Often this is only a single scene, but may combine two or three related short scenes. Chapters less than 2000 words are likely too short for a novel, while more than 4000 borders on too lengthy. Too short chapters cause a reader to fell rushed, while too long chapters create fatigue.