Chapter length #amwriting

Authors just starting out often wonder how long should a chapter be.

A good rule of thumb is to consider the comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. With that said, you must decide what your style is going to be.

Some authors make each scene, no matter how short, a chapter. They will end up with 100 or more chapters in their books, and that is perfectly fine.

Other authors try to set a word-count limit. I personally have found that 2,500 to 3,000 words is a good length, and most scenes seem to average that. One series of my books has  longer chapters, as it is really a collection of stories surrounding the main character. In that series, each story forms a chapter and sometime they are longer than 3,000 words.

Within the arc of the entire story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by scenes. The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it began. Once you have decided what length you are comfortable with for your chapters, longer scenes can be an entire chapter on their own, or several scenes can be chained together to make a chapter.

When you chain scenes together within one chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter—it must reveal something and push the story forward toward something.

With each scene we are also pushing the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view, and this is my preferred choice. I don’t think that is completely necessary in every case, but you should limit point of view changes. It’s easier for the reader to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the story. If you do switch POV characters, you must change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs, to avoid head-hopping. (Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck.”)

So now we come to a second question: Should I just use numbers, or give the chapter a name?

What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If snappy titles pop up in your mind for each chapter, by all means go for it. Otherwise, numbered chapters are perfectly fine and don’t throw the reader out of the book. One series of my books has numbered chapters, the other has titled chapters.

How do you want your book constructed? You must make the decision as to the right length and end chapters at a logical place. But do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “Chapter length #amwriting

  1. This was helpful. I struggled with how long my chapters should be, how many scenes to stitch together, and found I like shorter chapters when possible. What can be read in one sitting, but also feeling that each chapter should make some point, or perhaps mark some waypoint in the protagonists journey. I found I liike snappy titles too. In a way the titles point to the point, to the thing that made the chapter vital to the characters journey and essential to the story.

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  2. I’ve always been fond of the chapter headings that start with quotes or snippets of poetry — I don’t know why — it just gives me a delicious sense of anticipation to pause and take in what the author used to introduce the chapter, to wonder why, and look for the connection as I read.

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    • That was one thing I enjoyed about L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s “Magic of Recluce” series. He used chapter numbers, but prefaced them with a relevant paragraph from a holy book, something to illuminate an idea presented in the chapter.

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  3. Helpful, I am trying to write a nove using a specific program but it gives no hint as to chapter length so I enjoyed your post.Thanks for the advice. My normal method of writing is flash fiction so have not really had to consider this before.

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  4. Tom Gould

    It could be argued that there is no right or wrong answer to this. What I usually do is pick a number and write the intended number of pages or I write to a certain time. Therefore varying the length of the chapters.

    Sometimes writing a lot of very short chapters can impair the flow, whereas writing very long ones can be potentially impair the readers attention span (I am not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence here). The best way is to get what you want written down and always end your chapter on either a cliff hanger or its logical point of conclusion. However on saying that if like I do you do the set number of pages method always know exactly what is going to happen eight to ten chapters down the line.

    Any thoughts on this advice would be welcome and I hope that I have not offended anyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are correct that there is no official rule–the one thing we have to keep in mind is to provide a rhythm for our readers where they can pause and absorb what they have read (or sleep, or go to their jobs). We are all readers, so we have an idea of what that happy medium between choppy and drawn out is. And you are also right that chapter endings are as critical as opening lines!

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  5. Thank you for the great advice. Most of my chapters run between 3 and 4 thousand words. I love chapters with titles, my second book I used them. The manuscript I’m working on has numbered chapters. I stop my chapter when I’ve completed the intermediate story or I’m at a cliffhanger.

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  6. Reading this is the first time I’ve given more than a passing thought to the length and structure of chapters. Maybe this is nostalgia (and I’m dating myself), but Brian Jacques seemed to have struck an ideal balance, in his Redwall series – some chapters longer, some shorter, almost always closing up a smaller story within the grander adventure, while opening up another. Scene jumping, if it happened, established it’s own rhythm and cadence that kept me turning those pages.

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