What is a novel? Wikipedia calls it "A novel is a long narrative in literary prose." So what does that mean? A novel is an art form, involving the written word. Literary in this case indicates the quality of the writing, at least to some people. It’s also not the subject of this blog. A novel is just a story that is too complicated in scope to be told in three or four pages. It needs more room to unfold. A good novel is like origami in reverse, with the story folded into a deceptively small bundle and the reader, by dint of reading it, unfolds the story into the large whole.
How long is a novel? What makes a novel? How many words does a novel have? How many chapters does a novel have? There’s no clear-cut answer to any of those questions. The organizers of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) define it as a fifty-thousand-word work of fiction. They admit that a length of fifty thousand words is a bit short for a novel. A novel can be defined as a work of fiction that is over fifty thousand words in length. A novel progresses along a plot that has as many or as few chapters as the author sees fit to use.
Chapter length is as subjective as the novel length. Some chapters can be thirty or more pages in length while others are a single page. Most are defined by the action contained in them. Personally, I tend to use scenes as my chapters, with one scene equal to one chapter. Sometimes, a chapter frames a point of view. Sometimes, a chapter defines a point of view, but that is not always the case. Used effectively, chapter breaks can increase tension in a novel.
Chapters break the action, which is sometimes necessary in order to build tension or show the readers something they need to know. I sometimes use chapter breaks to shift to someone else’s point of view in the story or to add to the suspense. John is hanging by a rope on the side of a cliff and Stanley, who wants to kill him, is down below. If he looks up, he will see John and shoot him. Chapter break! Sometimes the new chapter takes you to Mary, who can see John’s predicament or even to John’s experience in Afghanistan or some other flashback. Chapter breaks can help build tension or suspense.
This is what novels do, they build up suspense or tension and release it slowly, as opposed to the short story. The short story builds up suspense quickly and releases it even quicker. It’s the difference between using an air hose to fill a balloon, then popping it and blowing the balloon up by lung power, releasing the air through the same hole you blew it up from. The time it takes to blow the balloon up and release the air is the length of the novel. How long does it take to build the suspense and how long to release it? Short stories do it fast, novels take their time.