How Long Should a Chapter Be? Answer: 1-2 Unicorns

The Problem

How can we make our chapters more dramatic, more nimble, more powerful -- without confusing the reader?

There is so much that can happen in a chapter. And when we think of the books we love, it's easy to remember a host of fascinating elements, and so it's equally easy to think: my chapters need to have all of those cool things. 

More simply, it's hard to know what to focus on, or what to use as a guiding light. Whether you are a pantser or a plotter, you know instinctively that readers prefer stories that flow smoothly, that progress and develop in a "good" way; and yet there are so many things you know you are supposed to include:

  • action and "plot"
  • character development
  • essential info
  • setting
  • foreshadowing
  • "theme"
  • dialogue
  • backstory

This can quickly become overwhelming. If you try to focus on including all of these things in a single chapter, you will likely, sooner or later, stop writing, or switch into editing mode, going back and revising pages, over and over again.

I would like to propose a simpler approach.

I believe that when a reader picks up your book, they are primarily looking for a relationship with a main character. They want to relate to a protagonist, and, through the plot, be drawn into a closer and closer relationship. 

If we use this as a starting point, figuring out what a chapter should be about becomes easier. We are, primarily, writing about a person and the things that person cares about; the plot forces the character to do something about his or her yearnings, fears, hopes, regrets and so on. 

Everything else is optional. The name of the novel's villain; how hyper-meld technology works; the reason her ex-husband stole the family parrot; the fact that none of these eighteenth century urchins are wearing shoes; the revelation that the heiress to the pornography empire has grown bored... These things can be brought up later

Step one is to connect your reader to a person -- a person who is doing something, or having something done to them.

And the best way to design a chapter around the development of such a relationship is to write in scenes.

This Lesson Contains

The first part of writing "character-first" is designing chapters that focus on your character's goals, ambitions, yearnings, fears -- and which depict that character's attempts to take action on those feelings / beliefs.

That's what a "scene" is: a continuous period of narrative time, usually in one location, where the character tries to get or avoid something. 

- Newland Archer has to defend the reputation of his fiancee's cousin during a dinner-party.

- Synite tries to intimidate the leading dignitaries of a coastal town.

- In a prison shower room, Jack Reacher has to fight his way out of an attempt on his life.

When the character either gets what they want, or doesn't, or discovers something surprising, the scene usually ends.

scene map

Writing like this will make your work easier for your readers to follow.

But there's another layer, and this will help you build intense, remarkable stories.

A "sequel," following each scene, allows your character to pause, reflect, consider, recover, and make a new plan. It is a period of introspection by the main character.

In other words, 

Scenes allow you to create focused passages with lots of narrative momentum.

Sequels allow you to show the meaning of those dramatic moments, clarifying to the reader what effect the recent event had on the protagonist, and explaining what the protagonist intends to do next.Enter your text here...

(these terms come from Jack Bickham's excellent craft book, Scene and Sequel.)

Worksheet: Mia Gets Angry (download)

So let's try out this scene / sequel technique.

First, let's try to sketch out a few scenes.

Imagine that you are writing a novel about a mild-mannered college instructor, Mia. 

Mia is an adjunct professor, teaching different classes in a series of universities in upstate New York. She has no health insurance; she never knows where she will be teaching from season to season; each college can cancel her classes at any time.

Mia struggles to pay the rent, to cope with her ex's cruel social media posting, to get respect from her many employers... and yet she remains calm and amiable, most of the time.

You have this idea that in a chapter or two, Mia is going to be visited by some sort of dark magical being, and offered a strange stone watch, a smoking, eldritch timepiece that will allow her to get revenge on everyone who has crossed her.

The problem is that you, as the writer, don't find it believable that Mia would say yes. Why would a good person accept the aid of an ancient evil god with an uncertain number of tentacles?

You realise that you will have to design your scenes carefully, to put increasing pressure on Mia, over three scenes, until she is worn down by life, until her good intentions are exhausted.

Complete the worksheet to figure out what those scenes might be, and share them, if you like, in a comment below.

Three scenes to really upset Mia

or click the image below....

Practice: An Unwelcome Distraction (Interactive)

Now let's sketch out a sequel.

As you'll see, a sequel allows you to add character-depth and meaning to scenes even as the plot keeps moving forwards. It's in the sequels that we really get to know the protagonist, where, for example, we learn how Mia really feels about losing her apartment.

This next activity is interactive, and you can take it as many times as you like to see all the different options.

These exercises will get more complex as the course goes on and you build up your skills. This first one is simple: what if your protagonist experienced something that you've experienced in your own (real) life? How would they react?

PS If you enter your email address when prompted, I'll send you everything you wrote by email -- and you'll see the full response to the lesson once you click "finish." So feel free to write more than the minimum for the prompt: you'll get it all sent to your inbox once you complete the lesson.

You can either click this link to begin the prompt or use the purple button, below.

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Now: leave a comment below 🙂

Share some of your writing! Ask me a question! Tell me what to cover in more depth...

  • Elizabeth G. Wilmerding says:

    3rd scene for Mia: the last straw for Mia was getting weird, unexplained headaches which left her in pain and cranky. Aspirin doesn’t really help and having no insurance, she can’t go to a doctor for help. Eventually, when the demon with the watch comes around again, she figures, “Maybe I’m dying from a brain tumor. At least I can get a little sweet revenge on the people and the stupid system which exploits adjunct, nomadic teachers!” And she begins making a list of all the people who need a little payback…

  • Deborah Powell says:

    “Unicorns.” Love it.

  • Elizabeth G. Wilmerding says:

    I appreciate your approach. It meshes with other things I’ve read about creating a relationship between the character and the reader. I’m looking forward to trying out the scene-sequel-scene-sequel technique both by looking for it in other people’s writing and in my own.

  • Ahsoka Jackson says:

    My 3rd-scene concept for Mia: She tries to extend an olive branch to her ex-fiancé by congratulating him on his being featured in an art exhibition, but he accuses her of being a passive-aggressive stalker and makes negative comments about her mental state, saying he’s surprised the people at her current job were willing to hire such a liability issue.

  • Ahsoka Jackson says:

    My feedback on the lesson:

    Enjoyed the video, and there was plenty of information packed into a bite-sized space of time. That was definitely nice.


    Glad we had the examples in the worksheet to start us off. It’s really important to me to have concrete examples of the kind of thing we’re supposed to be going for. Also, I likely would’ve overwritten without them, thinking I had to try and write out the entire scene in-depth rather than just a sketch of it. So very glad they were there for clarity.


    I really enjoyed the interactive portion overall, and I’m glad I went back to check out the other two paths as well.

    My one comment there is that I think it would be a good idea to add a clearer ending screen or notice of what the endpoint is. It was puzzling to write in the scene continuation and then simply be taken back to the main screen, not having known that there was nothing else after the part you write yourself. And with the option where there was no additional scene to write ourselves—the confident response where the character was immediately ready to move forward again—that also got confusing.

    It would just be helpful to have something let us know that yes, the exercise has been completed and there’s nothing missing or glitching out. (-:

    • That’s a good point! Let me think how to do that.

  • Ahsoka Jackson says:

    These are my submissions for the interactive section:

    For the regretful path, I answered in a summary style, and then for the isolated path, I wrote the reaction bit out more fully. I actually ran out of space as it exceeded the 500-word amount. In both cases, since it wasn’t an already named and identified character, I used a character from my own series. That way I wouldn’t get stuck on having to figure out psychology and other details for a brand new one, and could focus on the exercise itself.

    Regretful Path Prompt:

    Part two: who rescues them?
    The character is stuck, for the moment unable to get back on track. They know they need to seek out the person they came to talk to, but the weird interaction they just finished has left them feeling discontent and unbalanced. Fortunately, a friendly figure appears, and gives them a small push: this gets them out of their minor funk. Who is this friendly face, and what do they say?

    Reply: His best friend at work. She tells him that there’s still time to catch up with the woman he needs to speak to, and semi-jokingly offers to run interference to keep the elderly man from interrupting again.


    Isolated Path Prompt:

    Part two: eyes on me
    Now that the character is conscious of their isolation and vulnerability, how does the room change in their perception? What reminders do they see / hear of their difference to the people nearby? What veiled antagonism do they detect in the two random people leaning against a wall?

    Reply: He let out a sharp breath and scanned the room. And remembered how much he hated events like this. Crowded spaces overstocked with perfume and stuffed suits for whom these subjects were framed by board meetings and lost dollars rather than spilled blood and lost friends. They were easy to spot—they exhibited this attitude of relaxation—no, carelessness—that he hadn’t had the luxury of for…years.

    He felt eyes on him and glanced over to see a clearly well-fed pair of older men huddled near the wall nearby, staring. Scowling. When he made eye contact, they turned away and returned to their conversation—wineglasses in hand and disdain all but leaking from their pores.

    The kinds of people who easily could’ve and would’ve ended up seeking his protection. He clenched his jaw and prayed to God that Sarai Owens wasn’t going to be like that. But even if she wasn’t, he had to get ahold of himself.

  • Suzanne O'Gorman says:

    Mia Gets Angry
    3rd Scene

    The snow had turned into a slushy mess by the time Mia reached home. She parked her beat-up compact car on the street between the strange pieces of furniture her neighbors were using to mark their parking spots. It was the one time Mia was grateful for her crappy, piece-of-shit car. If the ladder or the wingback chair sitting out in the parking lane landed on her car, she would probably never notice it.
    A second car pulled up as she extricated herself from her car. By the time she was on the sidewalk, her neighbor was already moving his furniture.

    “Can I help?” Maybe Greg new of another apartment for rent. It was worth a shot.

    Greg grinned back at her, “That would be a big help.” He looked back at his car. Inside sat his wife and the new baby.

    Looking around, Mia wondered where they kept all this furniture during the rest of the year. She grabbed the ladder. Looking up, she realized that Greg had weighed it down with something substantial on the top step. She wasn’t sure what it was until it was too late to get out of its way.

    Regretful Path:
    C. A small failure

    She heard the odd sound it made long before she saw it. The sign had become unhinged in the wind and groaned in agony above the lone figure. Mia watched in horror as an older man stood under it, shivering in the cold. He just stood there.

    “Get out of there,” she waved at the man, who only waved back.

    “Moron,” she said under her breath as she tried to mime him moving out from under the sign. He laughed and waved again. This time he attempted the old mime routine of the invisible wall in front of him.
    The sign groaned again. This time it was loud enough that the older man finally looked up. She tried to concentrate and imagine the store’s sign hovering in the air.

    “Get out of the way,” she yelled. It seemed to shudder at the touch of her thoughts, but she’d only slowed it down. The man seemed frozen in fear underneath it.

    Mia gave up on her new abilities and tackled the man out of the way. They landed in a jumble on the other side of the sign as it hit the ground. The sign exploded, and it suddenly rained down metal, glass, and the occasional spark.

    Once again, Mia found herself hating her new abilities. What was the point if she couldn’t get them to work? It’s not like they came with a manual or anything. Or maybe they did. She could have lost it on the way to the hospital. That would be so much like her.

    She looked down at the blood on her hands. Maybe she could find it on her way to the hospital this time.

  • Cherl Wheaton says:

    My self doubt practice:Rell entered the darkened aery and sat in the open middle area. He let his breathing match the rhythmical snoring of the Drakelings. Think. Gaura is up to something. She never gives in or changes her mind easily. Does she know something I don’t know? Think. Rell shook his head. I’m missing something.”

  • Carmelita D Brooker says:

    The iPad went missing. — as a result, they ended up feeling self-doubting. So they reacted to the experience like this: “She stands in the middle of study. Then she starts turning as she takes in every inch of the room above floor level. She always returns to the place where she left it.”

  • Carmelita D Brooker says:

    Re the iPad snippet I posted below. I shall use this behaviour/trait (using an early event where she has something go missing in a gaslighting incident involving an Antagonist) to point to the Protagonist’s character at the beginning of the story. Wow. That was a long sentence. 😀

  • Mia’s 3rd Scene: Mia learns through a social media post that her ex’s grandmother passed away, a woman Mia dearly loved. Despite all that happened between Mia and her ex, she wants to show her respect to his grandmother. She stays up the night before piecing together her own floral arrangement for the family, since special orders are so expensive. The flowers alone meant she’d be eating lighter all week. Mia shows up to the viewing after reading the details in the obituary. To her surprise, she is accosted by her ex’s family (whom she all thought were friendly *enough* before), and learns her ex has told some filthy lies about her, and she is aggressively and embarrassingly thrown out before the funeral begins. Her flower arrangement fell apart in the scuffle.

    • angela.shapow says:

      I’m very grateful that a scenario like this does not qualify as a minor annoyance in my life. I can only imagine the shit this narrator must have to put with.

    • angela.shapow says:

      Oops on my last comment. I now realize this is your response to the worksheet prompt- an appropriate scenario for a woman about to accept a gift from an evil being. :).

  • Oh wow! It looks like the prompts have completely changed. I’m curious about what the original “third scene,” “regretful path,” and “isolated path” people have mentioned in previous comments are all about!

  • hmcneilnz says:

    I really like the beats of momentum and reflection. I can see it will give the character more depth

  • 3rd scene

    Mia opened an email from her college job and was advised that unless she can provide a new address asap she wont be registered for jobs in the new year. How could they know this? She had only posted on the share a let platform that morning, and it was private. then the dms started,
    you’re such a loser, cant be homeless and expect to work in a college
    emoji grin
    Dam her ex, he found out, probably from the group chat with vinnie and her friends. WTA? He is.

  • Amused:
    Her sister doesn’t respond to text.
    oh if Sis isnt there who can i discuss this with? Look, there’s a better talk buddy, my neighbours cat Blackout who is sitting on my porch. He’s friendly, will not disagree, or argue, or tell me how limited I am in my thinking!

    Self doubting:
    Can’t find her special shoes.
    Why couldnt she just keep her stuff organised. The one day she wanted to look cool and professional ain her black heels and they were lost, unfound, on a different continent! She was sure her ugly chonky brown slip ons were not a good look for the extra job she was interviewing for as a retail assisant. Would they still her a chance?

    The car starts making strange noises halfway to town.
    Emma stopped the car, pulling it over to the side, and wound down the windows for her dogs.
    NO, this was not happening. If she couldn’t get the car going she was stuck with walking the dogs back home, a big ask of the older collie. No, she had options, but no money for a big fix. Ok, breath deep, first step is check the lights, oh not the oil sign! Ok, go open the hood, and check the levels. Bad, way down. Check the boot for the spare oil, yes, there’s enough. So job done and dusted! She didn’t feel confident going on until she could get someone to check over the vehicle. Better to be back home than stuck in town.

  • carlosmendoza648 says:

    I also read Jack Bicham´s book, and I agree with you completely on the character not failing and failing. For example, my character´s gonna become a cardiologist, but before that, he has to succeed in some minor goals. But, generally speaking, Bickham´s book is great.

  • patrickpenwright says:

    You imagined that your protagonist experienced: job offer taken back — as a result, they ended up feeling self-doubting. So they reacted to the experience like this: “He felt dejected as he received the news. The friend he talked to about the job, asked how it went. He explained that there was a difference in morals and ethics. Secretly, he contacted the company to find out why he was rejected after the offer.”

  • melnick1936 says:

    Mis tired of Being an Easy Mark
    Mia goes into the teacher lounge to get a cup of coffee and eyes the last roll on a tray in the center of the table where three coworkers sit. She walks toward the table, and Greg, a history teacher, slaps the table, saying “damn cockroaches got to the roll before I did “and wipes his hand on a napkin. Mia is just outside the door when she sees Greg take the roll and hears him say, “ She fell for the slapping an imaginary bug trick. She’s an easy mark, I thought she’d grab the roll before I did,” Mia fumes, tired of being an easy mark for bullies.

  • angela.shapow says:

    The cat batted at my plant — as a result, they ended up feeling defiant. So they reacted to the experience like this: “‘Hey! Kitty. What the f—k are you doing? That’s my plant,” she said the emphasis falling on ‘my’. Taking several large, decisive stride towards the wayward cat, the cat who she had, just two days before, seen tear the legs off of a bumblebee to torment in its crippled state. This cats days of terror and mayhem were going to come to an end. She swatted the cat down with a sigh. “F—king animals.”

    I’m not sure I’m doing this right…

  • Tina McCoy says:

    OK, this page is much better than page 1. The audio narration is much clearer than on the previous page. I like the voice-over that keeps me listening without the distraction of living colors and movements. The instructions are clear, I can follow your train of thought and meaning.
    I like the illustrated breakdown of Jack Bickham’s Model. Thank You.

  • So, Daniel, I’ve read through your opening of Lesson One and am wondering…When and where does the writer introduce the overall STORY GOAL, during which the threads of the scenes and equals flow to show how the characters grow and change to overcome his/her basic flaws/beliefs/knots by the Climax?

  • ashleyrose619 says:

    Mia gets angry, in scene 3.
    Mia wanders around the supermarket. She ponders over the squashes, feeling each one for firmness. How could her landlord be so cruel? Distracted she placed the best squash beside her fresh kale, coconut milk, and curry paste. Her mother had taught her to cook for distraction, and distraction was what she needed.
    Wishing the checkout girl a good day she headed back out into the blazing sun, blinded momentarily she paused. Her eyes met with the eyes of the homeless man, legs crossed, an almost empty cardboard cup in front of him.
    Purse still in hand, her heart swelled at the thought of helping another despite her recent misfortune. She juggled her shopping bags and purse walking towards him, his face grinning. Too late, she never noticed the young boy in cut-off dirty jeans tear past her, grabbing her purse as he went. Faster than lightning he was round the corner, the apparently homeless man at his tail.
    Mia stood, bereft, tears streaming down her cheeks.

  • I really enjoyed this first lesson – it’s making me look at writing from a totally different perspective. Thank you!

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