Even if your work-in-progress has all the right elements in place— an amazing protagonist, an engaging setting, and a breathless conflict —it can be easy to get hung up on the mechanics of the thing you’re building. Like, how many words should your chapters have? How many pages? How many chapters should there be overall? What is a chapter??
Rest easy, writers. We’ll break down everything you need to know about chapter lengths and how to find the ones that work best for your story.
Why do novels have chapters?
Most (though not all) novels are broken into chapters to create pauses in the narrative. This usually happens when there’s a major change in the story; for instance, a new setting or a new character. You’ve probably read novels where one chapter is told from one character’s perspective, and then the next chapter is told through the eyes of a different character. The chapter break gives the writer an opportunity to shake things up and keeps the reader from getting confused.
A chapter might also change when you want to move into a different story line—in other words, from the main plot to a subplot—or leave the reader hanging on an outburst of high energy. You can also use a chapter break to indicate a jump forward in time.
Chapters allow readers room to breathe as they’re powering through your novel, and allow you spaces to regroup, recalibrate, and re-emerge into a new scene.
Chapter breaks vs. scene breaks
Another way to separate parts of a narrative is with scene breaks. In a novel this might be indicated with a dingbat (which is a little symbol used to show a break in the story) or simply a space between two paragraphs.
Some novels use both chapter breaks and scene breaks, while some novels—like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea or Deirdre Madden’s Molly Fox’s Birthday —use only scene breaks with no chapter breaks at all.
So what’s the difference? Not a whole lot; both are used to indicate a transition in the narrative. In general, chapter breaks are more emphatic and represent a larger shift, while scene breaks are softer, indicating a small turn.
You might use a scene break instead of a chapter break when you want to jump ahead in time but maintain the same point of view character—for instance, if you don’t want to waste space on the page watching your character get from home to school. Other times, writers use scene breaks simply because the scene doesn’t feel long enough to stand as its own chapter; fitting two or more scenes together gives the chapter more weight (and keeps the reader reading).
How long should a book chapter be?
There are exceptions to every rule, but in general, an average chapter word count is between 1,500 and 4,500 words. More than this can be challenging to the average reader’s attention span. Remember—if your reader puts your book down in the middle of a chapter, there’s a chance they won’t pick it up again!
Average chapter lengths can vary a little bit by genre convention; we’ll look at those below.
Average chapter length for literary fiction
This is your day-to-day, slice-of-life, character-driven story, including romance and women’s fiction. These chapters can, of course, vary hugely depending on the overall tone of the story, but most chapters in literary fiction average between 2,000 and 4,000 words.
A good example is The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, which averages about 3,200 words per chapter.
Average chapter length for fantasy fiction
Epic fantasy, and its near-cousin epic historical fiction (think Tudor, regency, etc), will often have longer chapters. Works like The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones need more space to illuminate their expansive worldbuilding.
When a reader picks up a book like this, they’re expecting to dive deep into a whole new world. That means they can be a little more patient with how much time they spend in each chapter. Chapters in fantasy novels average between 3,000 and 5,000 words—but can go much higher.
A Game of Thrones has 60 chapters across an overall length of almost 300,000 words. The average length of each chapter is just under 5,000 words, although some are shorter and some are much longer.
Average chapter length for crime and thriller fiction
Mysteries, crime novels, and thrillers tend to be fast paced and reveal information at a brisk, steady clip. These chapters are usually between about 1,000 and 3,000 words.
James Patterson’s novel Along Came A Spider is just over 100,000 words, and has almost 100 chapters! His average length per chapter is 1,100 words.
Average chapter length for children’s fiction
For younger readers, chapters tend to be a bit shorter—between about 1,000 and 2,500 words. Keep in mind that for many children’s and middle-grade novels, the font will be bigger and take up more space on the page.
Young adult chapters can go a bit longer: around 2,000 to 4,000 words per chapter, the same as literary fiction. Try and avoid going too much higher than that, though, because (shocker) teenagers aren’t known for their generous attention spans.
The Hunger Games, a YA novel with a wide adult readership, has chapters that average about 3,500 words.
Average chapter length for creative nonfiction
The average chapter length for a memoir can vary a lot depending on how much time you want to encompass in each chapter, and in the entire book overall. If your memoir reads more like a true-to-life novel, the 2,000 to 4,000 range of literary fiction is a safe bet.
If you’re focusing on a very specific experience, you might want to use shorter chapters to focus on each lesson or detail. For example, Matt Haig’s memoir Reasons to Stay Alive has 70 chapters across only 279 pages—many chapters are only a few hundred words.
Keep in mind, these are all very general guidelines about what has worked well for writers and readers in the past. Your book might be something completely new! You can experiment with very short chapters, very long chapters, or a mix of both depending on what your story needs.
Next we’ll look at what to consider when looking at the individual chapters of your book.
How to write and structure your book chapters
So with all that in mind, how do you know the perfect chapter word counts for your story? Here are a few ways you can establish and structure your novel’s chapters.
Structure your scenes
There are two ways you can structure a scene to fill a complete chapter:
Beginning, middle, end.
Easy, right? An effective chapter will read like a mini story in itself (Neil Gaiman once said that a good short story should read like the first chapter in a novel you haven’t written). These mini stories come together in a mosaic to create one larger, complete story.
Therefore, keep your story structure basics in mind. Establish the setting and characters in your chapter, create tension and conflict through your characters’ goals, and then conclude it in some small way that contributes to your broader story.
Beginning, middle, end… beginning.
Another popular approach is to give your chapter a basic story arc shape as outlined above, and then begin the next mini story. This is where you get the classic cliffhanger. Your chapter has reached a satisfactory conclusion to the tension that was raised; then, the chapter ends by introducing a new element that keeps the reader turning the page.
Looking at structure in this way can help you keep on top of your word count goal for each chapter, ensuring they don’t run on too long or drop off too soon.
Reflect your story’s rhythm
Varying chapter lengths is a great tool to help with the pacing of a novel. Shorter chapters will help speed up the narrative, while longer chapters will make it feel more relaxed.
Therefore, you can help the reader connect to your story by using longer chapters for more introspective, thematic scenes and shorter ones for scenes with a lot of tension and action.
Some murder mysteries will use shorter chapters towards the end when the sleuth is closing in on the killer, or an action novel might use shorter chapters when time starts running out to foil the villain’s plan. This makes the reader feel like the story is picking up and hurtling towards its conclusion.
Build up to a payoff
Sometimes, you might start a chapter with a clear idea of where you want it to wind up—the next big narrative turn in your plot. Then, everything in your chapter is building up to that moment.
This payoff might be a resolution to a dramatic question that’s been driving your characters from the beginning—will the lovers finally come together? Will the reporter finally discover the elusive family secret?—or it might be a major event or revelation that brings your characters to the next leg of their journey.
Does chapter length really matter?
In the end, does the chapter length matter? A successful chapter is more about what it delivers to the reader than its average word count, so don’t worry about counting words too much. During your editing process, you may step back and find that the book’s longest chapter would work better as two shorter ones, or one chapter zips by a bit too fast and needs to be fleshed out a little. It’ll be easier to see how each chapter fits into the overall story arc once you’re finished your first draft.
Remember, there are only two hard and fast rules when it comes to the right chapter length: move the story forward, and hold the reader’s attention!