One of the frequently asked questions over on the writers’ group I belong to is some variation of “how long should my chapters be?” The short answer is “It depends on the book”, but this isn’t the place for short answers, so let’s explore chapters.
A chapter is a natural break in the story and should always occur between scenes. It indicates a change in characters, a change in point of view, a change in setting, or a passage of time. Somewhere in the first half page of a new chapter, there should be some indication of where you are, how much time has elapsed since the last chapter ended, and who is present. The ending should be the end of a conversation, a person leaving, or an event wrapping up. It can end with a reveal, a question, or a tone/mood.
So how long?
In my Underground Series, I aimed for 2000 words per chapter. This was a Middle Grade (grades 4-8) science fiction series and each book in the series was 20-30k total length. 2000 words per chapter, give or take, plus a prologue and epilogue in each book, gave me roughly 9-10 chapters.
When I was ghostwriting 50k erotic romance I aimed for 4000 words per chapter, or roughly 12 chapters. This allowed me to follow a common pacing framework within the stories.
Now, I’m working on an epic fantasy. I’ve got no clue how long it will be, but the outline fits nicely into 20 chapters. These chapters are ranging between 3500 words and 5800 words, give or take. I figure as long as none are over 6000 or under 3000 and all break at natural places, they’ll feel fairly uniform.
In all of these examples the length of the chapter changes in relation to the total word count of the book – a bigger book has both more chapters and longer chapters. But chapters don’t have to be uniform.
In the Rose Garden Series, I didn’t use traditional chapters. Instead of Chapter 1, Chapter 2 … each chapter starts with the date of the scenes taking place. Each chapter is one day. Some chapters start with a time-lapse recap if there is a gap of several days between chapters, but otherwise, one chapter is one day. So, some chapters were 4000+ words and some chapters were 250 words.
So, what’s right?
There is no hard and fast rule, but something to keep in mind about chapters is that they are put into books, not only to signify the changes I mentioned earlier but to give the reader a place to put in a bookmark and take a break. It’s a breather. Even if it’s just long enough to refill your tea and come back. If the chapters are too long, the reader may feel that the book is dragging (“When is this chapter going to end?”) but if the chapters are too short it can make the story feel broken and choppy, like too many interruptions at dinner.
Let’s sum this up into a few simple guidelines:
- A chapter should end at the end of a scene.
- A chapter should be as long as it needs to be to complete the scene, or related series of scenes, in a satisfactory way.
- Longer books generally have more chapters and longer chapters than shorter books.
- Chapters should be long enough to give the reader something to enjoy but short enough that they can take a breather.
- Chapters do not have to be uniform in length so long as the follow points 1 and 2.
Now, what about chapters within chapters?
Off the top of my head, the first example I have of this, are the Black Jewel novels by Anne Bishop. The first book starts with “PART 1”. The next page says:
1 / Terreille
Now, Terreille is a realm in her world and chapter one happens to have three of these segments, each in a different place from the one before it. So, she has 3 books. Book 1 has 3 parts, each part has multiple chapters, each chapter has multiple sections. Sections start as soon as another ends (on the page – there are no page breaks), chapters start on new pages but no spacer pages in between (so they can start on either the left of the right) and Parts get a new page on the right with no other text on them.
Confused? It’s harder to explain than it is to follow when you’re reading. It works for her. It allows her to navigate a multi-planed world with several distinct settings without wasting a lot of time or words setting up each scene with needless description or exposition. Her method is not common and if you find it intimidating, or confusing, don’t use it.
I’m telling you about it because you can do it if you choose to. You can have Parts and Chapters. You can have Chapters and numbered sections. You can have all three. You can have just chapters. You can name your chapters “Chapter One, Chapter Two …” or use “Section” or “Part” instead of “Chapter” or you can name the chapters with words (I believe A Series of Unfortunate Events does this)
When do you decide?
For some writers, it works best to use no chapter breaks at all in the first draft. Just write. Once the draft is done and you’ve reordered the scenes to make a cohesive story, then you find the chapter breaks.
For some writers, they do it as they go along, putting in a chapter break where scene breaks allow or where it feels right.
For some writers, they do so much outlining, and have a decently clear idea of how long certain scenes will be and how they fit together, that they can break their outlines into rough chapters. This is me, though I’m often off by a chapter or two as scenes will run away with me or I’ll realize I need extra scenes somewhere (Whispers in the Dark started off at 18 chapters and now it’s 20, for example). This method isn’t better than either of the others.
The method you use depends on your writing style as much or more than it does on your level of experience. To be fair, I used the second method for years and only started doing the “chapters in the outline” method recently (I wrote crap for 15 years before getting published).
I hope this helps. If you have any questions, or you think there’s another point about chapters I should address here, or if you have suggestions for future articles, drop me a comment!