You’ve started your book. You’re brimming with ideas. You start hammering away at your text. And then – you hit a pause.
So now what?
Do you create a page break and start a new chapter? Or do you just do the three little asterisk thing? Or just crash straight on?
And what if your chapters are too short? Or too long? Will your readers laugh at you? Will you cause literary agents to spill their lattes with laughter?
Honest truth? Chapter lengths don’t really matter too much. No manuscript has ever been rejected by an agent or neglected by a reader just because a chapter was too short or too long.
That said, chapter breaks are one of the key rhythmical features of a novel. Your story’s most obvious beats. So, it makes sense to use those beats to enhance everything else you’re doing. Getting that right is what this post is all about.
Chapter Length, In A Nutshell
- Too short: 1000 words or under
- Very short: 1000-1500 words
- Short: 1500-2000 words
- Standard: 2000 to 4000 words
- Long: 4000 to 5000 words
- Very long: over 5000
Those are the rules for adult novels. Kids’ books will have chapter lengths that vary by age range. And there’s no wrong here. Ducks, Newburyport has no chapters and it’s 400,000 words long. It’s still amazing.
What Is A Chapter? And Why Use Chapters?
OK. You know what a chapter is. A chapter is generally the major (and often the only) sub-division to be found in a book or novel. It’s marked, almost always, by a page break. The new chapter may be numbered or titled or even both.
In terms of scale, some books will also be divided into parts. (Part 1 might include 10 chapters, and so on.) Individual chapters may have minor separation breaks indicated by an asterisk, or similar.
But you knew all that. More important is why is a chapter? Why have them? Why do books need or want them, even after the concept of an actual printed book has become a bit blurred out by e-books and audio books?
And the answer is that any story has beats in it. Punctuation marks, in effect. Moments when the story – and the reader – want a moment’s pause. So the question of how many words there ought to be in a chapter is really a question of: how much text should a reader be asked to read before you give them a break?
To answer that question, we need to figure out when a reader is likely to demand a pause.
What Is The Purpose Of A Chapter?
The purpose of a chapter is to allow the reader to pause, and those pauses are most essential when:
- There is a change of point-of-view character
- There is a major change of scene
- There is a major jump in time
- A major sequence of action has just been completed
Put like that, it’s kind of obvious why you need a pause. You need a pause to avoid confusion. If you simply continued from one paragraph to the next while implementing a major switch of character / time / place / action, the reader would be perplexed. They’d need to read the section two or three times to figure it out, and that would (paradoxically) cause a weird slowdown in momentum.
The chapter break, in effect, tells the reader, “OK, you need to hit the reset button and prepare for something a bit different. The story is continuing, but that last scene has now ended.”
That convention means that as soon as the reader has flipped the page, they know to wipe the slate clean and prepare for some new scene to get going.
And that’s also why you need to be a little bit careful here. You can’t just say, “Oh, that scene was in a café, this one is in a street, that one is in a park, so we need a total of three chapters to handle all that.” You need to use your judgement too. If the same pair of individuals simply wandered through a city, having a conversation about the same thing, it doesn’t matter at all that the locations they pass through vary. The reader, correctly, regards that as a single unit of action.
If on the other hand, it’s not just the scenery that changes, it’s also the participants, their concerns and the type of action, you need to chop that sequence up into chapters accordingly.
What Is The Right Word Count For A Chapter?
With all that in mind, we can start to figure out how long our chapters ought to be. (Clue: it’s your story that is going to govern this in the end. Your story, and your readers.)
But here, for example, are some famous novels, along with word counts and chapter lengths:
- A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, 592,000 words, 19 chapter, average chapter length a totally insane 31,000 words.
- A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin, 298,000 words, 60 chapters, average chapter length 4,970 words
- Twlight, by Stephenie Meyer, 118,000 words, 25 chapters, average chapter length 4,720.
- 1984, by George Orwell, 89,000 words, 24 chapters, average chapter length 3,700.
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, 216,000 words. 75 chapters, average chapter length 2,880 words. (Book is also divided into 7 parts.)
- The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, 65,750 words, 25 chapters, average chapter length 2,630.
- Talking to the Dead, by me – Harry Bingham – 113,000 words, 49 chapters, average chapter length 2,300 words.
- The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, 96,400 words, 46 chapters, average chapter length 2,100.
- Along Came A Spider, by James Patterson, 106,000 words, 97 chapters, average chapter length 1,100.
You can pretty much forget the first of those examples – the Vikram Seth one. His book was almost boastfully extravagant in terms of length. That was its selling point, in a way, and it is such an outlier, you can discard it.
Martin’s Game of Thrones is epic fantasy fiction and its 5,000 word chapter length pretty much benchmarks the very top end of normal.
Likewise, Patterson, with his famously rapid-fire fiction, pretty much benchmarks the bottom end of normal. Most books (including, I discover, my own) lie in the 2,000 to 4,000 word range.
How To Figure Out What Chapter Length Is Right For You
In truth, you won’t really choose your chapter lengths. You’ll write your story, and your story will insert its own natural breaks, as you change scene, viewpoint or whatever. But as you can begin to guess from the data in the previous section, the story you tell is likely to impose a varying set of chapter lengths on you. So, from smallest to biggest, here’s what different stories are likely to need.
Very Short Chapters, Under 2,000 Words
Fiction with very short chapters has a kind of jump-cut, fast-edited quality to it. It will work for action fiction, but even then, it’ll work for the very fastest – and least reflective – action writing.
James Patterson is the huge benchmark of this type of fiction. You can’t really get shorter, faster, snappier writing than his … and notice that his chapter length doesn’t dip below 1,000 words (or not really. I expect that somewhere in his massive canon you’ll find an exception.)
That means if your average chapter length falls below 1,000 words, you are probably trying to cut too often – or that you haven’t yet given enough weight and depth to the scenes you are telling. Remember that even action fiction needs space to make an impression.
Normal Chapters, 2,000 To 4,000 Words
Just take a look at the list above. You’ll notice an impressive range of fiction in this ‘normal’ range.
There’s young adult fiction (Fault in Our Stars). There’s my own crime fiction. There are a couple of absolute literary classics (1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale).
In other words, whether you’re writing genre fiction, or literary, whether you’re writing for adults or teenagers, chapter lengths in this broad range will strike the reader as normal, expected, nothing to be alarmed about.
Very Long Chapters, 4,000 To 5,000 Words
If you’re writing chapters that regularly exceed the 4,000 word mark, you are, in effect, announcing to your reader that your story has a more than normal amount of heft and swagger. So George Martin’s Game of Thrones announces its genuinely epic aspirations in part by those epically sized chapters.
For authors of epic fantasy, long chapters will certainly work. The same probably goes for authors of some kings-n-queens type historical fiction. But this will be the exception. To most readers, most of the time, very long chapters will just feel … very long.
Chapter Rhythms: Mixing It Up
So far we’ve spoken of average chapter lengths, which is all well and good. But you can have long ones and short ones, as well as plenty of middling ones.
The shorter ones, especially, will mix up the rhythms of the rest and jolt the reader, in a useful way.
At the longer end, I still wouldn’t generally advise going over 5,000 words all that often. It’s just a plot of text, and readers need to be able to put the book down now and again.
At the shorter end, short can be very short. I’ve quite often written chapters that are 500 words or so. (That’s a page and a half or so of an ordinary paperback.) If you want to go to 300 words or even less, you can. All I’d say is that the hyper-short chapter is a little bit of an attention-seeking device. You risk having the reader think about you the author, rather than the story you have placed in front of them.
And the story, of course, should always come first.
You can find out more about standard word counts, here.
How To End A Chapter
Chapters end at natural breaks in your story. OK. We know that much. But you don’t just want to stop abruptly. You want to give your reader a satisfying ending for the chunk they’ve just read. Here are four great ways to end a chapter. They’re not mutually exclusive, so you might use more than one technique in a single place.
A scene or chapter is there to tell its own mini-story, with its own beginning, middle and end. And because stories are about change, scenes are about change too. So, a scene is typically based around some kind of story question, which is then resolved or changed by the end of the scene.
One good way to end a chapter is to find a way to highlight or encapsulate the change that has just happened. So let’s just say we have a proposal scene. Mark Manly has just gone down on one knee to propose marriage to Winona Winsome. He offers her a single red rose.
She says no. She rejects him.
There’s an argument. In the course of the argument, the rose is damaged. Winona marches out of the room.
The scene ends with Mark clutching a bare-rose, no petals. A sign of his failure.
I’m not sure that’s a super-brilliant way to handle a non-proposal scene, but you see the point I’m making. The rose comes to symbolise the hope at the start of the scene and the failure at the end. That’s one nice way to handle things.
Alternatively, however, let’s say that Winona says yes.
And let’s say that Mark has secretly loved Winona since he was an 11-year-old boy, seeing her arrive in (um, I don’t know) a skiff, a carriage, a hot air balloon outside his castle.
The triumph with which our current scene ends – she said yes! she said yes! – could be a reason to look back to the past, to that 11-year-old boy, and the long trials and tribulations of his love.
Again, a closing paragraph that looks back to the past could be a nice way to end the chapter.
Let’s twist the lens again.
Winona wants to marry Mark, yes, but the Dark Lord of Boundercad Hall has sworn to enslave her. He is coming for Winona that evening accompanied by (oh, I don’t know) twenty mounted troops and a very scary parrot.
So now, terrific, the intrepid couple see the prospect of infinite wedded bliss – but only if they can figure out a way to escape the clutches of the Dark Lord. So this chapter would naturally end with a look to the future. A glance up to the brooding presence of Boundercad Hall. Or a mention of the sound of horses being saddled, or a scary parrot squawking.
That hint of the future isn’t a cliffhanger, exactly, but it reminds the reader that big things are on the point of being decided.
If you have a dual-protagonist drama, then scenes (and chapters) will naturally switch from Person A to Person B and back again.
So let’s say, instead of a proposal scene, Mark and Winona are planning to elope. We’ve just had a chapter with Winona buckling on a sword, preparing her horse, saying farewell to her beloved three-legged cat. And now – the chapter ends. She’s ready for her night of adventure, but what about Mark?
You don’t have to make that question over–explicit in a chapter ending. (In fact, too explicit, and it’ll sound weak.) All you need to do is prompt the idea in the reader, as subtly as you like. So your chapter might end. “She was ready. All that mattered now was that Mark would be on that ferry.”
Again, that’s not really a cliffhanger, but it switches the story question from Winona to Mark. The reader will now think, “Jeepers. Yes! What about Mark?” and they’ll be all prepped for a scene where we see Mark facing some obstacle to getting on the ferry in time.
The Classic Cliffhanger
You might think it’s odd that I’ve left the classic cliffhanger scene to last … and that’s because such things are quite rare and usually quite crass.
The very first example – where the term came from, in fact – was Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, and it’s terrible. (See here for more.) It’s terrible, because the chapter ends with a man hanging (thoughtfully, calmly) by his fingertips from a cliff … and the next chapter starts with the exact same person hanging (still calmly) by his fingertips in the exact same spot and the exact same situation.
In fact, the badness of the Hardy scene reminds us that chapter breaks belong where stories have their natural breaks. There probably are good examples of the classic cliffhanger, but really, not many. For the most part, techniques 1-4 or some variant thereon will do you better.
That’s it from me. Have fun with your chapters – and, as ever, happy writing.
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