For some reason, chapters tend to baffle newbie novelists. I am frequently asked questions such as
What are they?
How long should they be?
How should they start and end?
Are they the equivalent of a short story? Is a novel a series of short stories strung together in chapters?
Should they have titles?
Let’s take these one at a time.
Chapters divide a novel into sections that psychologically give readers a stopping point. They help to break up a very long story and make it visually less intimidating. They serve to assist writers with transitions, viewpoint changes, and the setting of hooks. They are usually centered around a plot event.
Therefore, if an average-length novel contains roughly 20 plot events–give or take–then there will be approximately 20 or so chapters.
Chapter lengths vary. Time was when chapters were lengthy, featuring perhaps two or three scenes, with sequels in between. But then James Patterson started the trend of very short chapters. His rationale was based on shortening attention spans and multi-tasking, where readers are increasingly distracted by our hectic, modern world. So you might pick up an older, midlist book where chapters run as long as ten or fifteen pages. Or you might decide to read the latest young adult bestseller, where chapters average two to five pages.
The shortest chapter I can recall reading is in Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. It’s one sentence long.
It’s placed somewhere in the midpoint of the book for special effect, and it works beautifully as a transition and pacing change.
Chapters should end with hooks. Chapters should begin with hooks, or viewpoint changes, or time/location changes. Avoid starting each chapter the same way. Avoid ending chapters with your protagonist falling asleep. Set a hook at the end to keep readers turning pages.
Chapters are not short stories and should not be written in the same way. As I’ve already mentioned, they are either focused on a story event, which may involve one scene or two scenes. They may be focused on the aftermath of a major story event, where the protagonist has to pause and process what just happened.
Chapter titles usually appear in fiction for young readers. They serve as a guide or a foreshadowing of what’s about to happen. In effect, they are a tiny hook to keep young readers going. Fiction for adult readers seldom requires them.