As readers, we all know the thrill of careening through one chapter after another, devouring a story in bites just long enough to satisfy and just short enough to keep us turning the pages for more. But as writers, things like chapter length, chapter breaks, and even chapter titles can become uncertain and intimidating.
How do you know if a chapter is not enough, or too much, or does what it’s supposed to in your book? Fortunately, structuring chapters doesn’t have to be scary—we’ll guide you through everything you need to know about finding the perfect chapter structure for your nonfiction book or novel.
Why are chapters important in a book?
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, chapters separate your book into distinct tones, story beats, or ideas. Every time a new chapter begins, your readers understand that they’re being carried from one plot point or thematic idea to the next, and that something exciting is going to happen soon. This is what keeps them turning pages.
In addition to creating your book’s structure, chapters also make the story look more approachable to your reader. If they see that the entire book is just one neverending wall of text, reading can start to feel like work. Chapters make the story or information presented look like a journey, rather than an obstacle.
How many chapters should a book have?
You may decide you want to plan out how many chapters to have in your book before you begin. However, keep in mind that there are no hard-and-fast rules about exactly how many chapters is ideal for any given book—these can vary greatly even among books that are the same length. So what do you do?
In a standard novel, the number of chapters can range anywhere from about ten to around fifty (or more!). On average, twenty to thirty is a pretty good benchmark for most novels.
If you’re plotting your novel writing process using your favourite story structure, you might find setting a goal for a certain number of chapters can help you break down each section of your book more effectively.
If you plan on having thirty chapters, for example, then you can deduce that your inciting incident needs to happen around chapter two, your first major plot point at about chapter six, your midpoint turn at chapter fifteen, and so forth. This makes it easier to stay on track and keep the events of your story unfolding in the right rhythm.
However, many writers don’t even bother to use chapters until their first draft is finished! Then, they go back and see where the natural breaks in the narrative occur and insert chapter divisions there. This method helps your chapters unfold more organically and follow the rhythms of the story (rather than the other way around).
The novel Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden doesn’t use any chapters at all—it maintains a continuous stream of consciousness from beginning to end, with only a few scene breaks to give the reader some respite. This can be tricky to pull off since readers tend to welcome chapter breaks when they’re reading. However, it can be a fun approach to try if your novel, like Madden’s, is all told through a limited window of time.
Other books might go the opposite way and have many very short chapters. These can be effective in some cases, but difficult to maintain in others. We’ll look more at chapter length and how long your chapters should be below.
Traditional nonfiction books—books meant to teach us something new—have chapters divided by study topic (this is a bit different from creative nonfiction books, like memoirs, which follow more of a novel format). Traditional nonfiction chapters are often longer and cover more scope than a novel chapter. In general, an average nonfiction book will have around ten to twenty chapters.
Each nonfiction chapter should encompass an idea, argument, process, or period of time that feeds into the larger whole. If you have too many chapters, your arguments can start to sound erratic and unconvincing; if there are too few, they can start to drag and lose their intensity.
This is why it’s helpful to plan out your nonfiction book before you start writing and have a clear idea of everything you want to say. Fortunately, we have a dedicated lesson to creating a nonfiction book outline in our academy!
How long should each chapter be?
A chapter is always as long as the book needs it to be. The tough thing is that sometimes different books need different things depending on their genre, content, and target audience. So how do you know what the right chapter length should be?
Margaret Atwood said there’s only one rule of writing that really matters, and it is this:
Hold my attention.
Finding the perfect word count is all about managing the reader’s attention span, preventing their mind from wandering off to other things, and keeping them turning to the next chapter so they can find out what happens next. Let’s look at chapter length in a bit more detail.
What is the average chapter length?
While chapter lengths can vary enormously from one book to another, the average chapter length in literary fiction is about 3000 to 4000 words.
In general, epic fantasy books tend to have longer chapters—around 5000 or 6000 words on average. Mysteries and thrillers, which often rely on staccato dramatic questions and breakneck pacing, often have shorter chapters—usually 1000 to 2000 words. Romances and YA novels usually have average chapter lengths of around 2000 or 3000 words.
But these are only select guidelines; the rhythm of your story will determine how many words each chapter needs to be.
Try to write chapters that are all approximately the same length, so the reader knows what to expect. Sometimes, however, shorter chapters can be effective when you’re trying to make a statement. Consider Holly Black’s YA novel The Cruel Prince.
The prologue describes a scene in the protagonist’s childhood, in which a lot of things happen: the main character and their siblings are attacked, see their parents killed, learn of a world outside their own, and are then kidnapped and taken away to that world to grow up. Once this foundation has been established, Black conveys the passage of time through a very short first chapter:
This is about as short as a novel chapter can get. You couldn’t maintain single-sentence chapters all the way through your book—not only would they rack up into the thousands, they’d lose what was impactful about them in the first place. But used sparingly, short chapters can convey a powerful statement in a small amount of space.
While the average chapter word count is about the length of a short story, there is no standardized rule for how long a chapter should be. Your book will tell you what sort of chapter length it needs.
How do you know when a chapter is finished?
So when you’re writing your chapter, how do you know the right place to end one and begin the next?
A good chapter should accomplish two things before it’s done:
It should answer one or more of the dramatic questions raised in the previous chapter (if it’s your first one and there is no previous chapter, it should answer some of the questions raised in the first few paragraphs—like, who is this person? Why are they walking in this seedy alleyway in their best suit? What are they looking for?).
It should raise new questions to be answered in the following chapters (if it’s your last one and there is no following chapter, it should effectively answer any lingering questions that haven’t been answered yet).
This dynamic of question, answer, question is what keeps readers turning pages to find out more.
A great way to end your chapter on a dramatic question is to use a cliffhanger. This is when you close your chapter just on the brink of some major event or reveal. Using a cliffhanger creates a big question that your reader will only find out the answer to if they keep reading to the next one.
If your chapter is moving from one perspective to another, one location to another, or jumping forward (or backward) in time, ask yourself if your chapter has done both of these jobs. If not, consider a scene break instead of a chapter break—a space between one scene and another within the same chapter. You can have several scene breaks without needing to stop one chapter and start a new one.
Some writers like to use only scene breaks in their first draft. Then, at the end, they go back and pick out which ones to turn into chapter breaks instead.
Should you use chapter titles?
Titling chapters is one of the biggest questions new writers have when embarking on a novel-length work. Should chapters in a novel have names? Do you need fancy titles to introduce a scene? Or are numbers better?
In a traditional nonfiction book, chapters should always have titles. This tells the reader what they can expect to come away with by the time they’re finished. Your title explains what they’re about to learn, or what argument you’re trying to make through your work. Without chapter titles, you’ll have a harder time convincing readers to pick up your book.
In fiction, using titles for your chapters is a bit more subjective. Like many things in publishing, it is subject to certain trends; thirty or forty years ago, chapter titles were much more popular in novels than they are today. When considering titles for your chapters, ask yourself what purpose it’s serving in the book.
For example, many writers like to use timestamps as chapter headings—for instance, “Three Days Before the Fire,” or “1929.” This can be helpful if your book jumps around in time a lot and you want to make sure your reader always knows where and when they are.
Other times, a writer might use character names as titles if the story is being told from multiple perspectives. Jennifer Ryan’s novel The Kitchen Front is told from the point of view of four different women, and each chapter has the narrator’s name at the top so the reader doesn’t get confused.
Using a descriptive chapter title like “Into the Dark Woods” or “The Final Battle” can enhance your story, but they can also read as a bit distracting. This is entirely a matter of preference. If you love the idea of using descriptive captions to open your individual chapters, you certainly can—just make sure to use similar chapter titles that complement each other and maintain your book’s rhythm. Otherwise, relying on chapter numbers is a timeless and reliable way to set each chapter apart.
Should a book be broken into parts?
Sometimes, you’ll see novels being broken into even bigger sections—Part One, Two, and Three (or more!). Are parts right for your story?
Not every novel needs separate parts, and there’s no rule for when, and how many, to use. However, you may find parts useful if:
Your book jumps forward substantially in time
Your narrative suddenly switches from one character to another
Something cataclysmically life changing happens to your protagonist
Your protagonist achieves their ultimate goal, only to be faced with a new one
In general, each “part” should read as its own self-contained story. Then, each of these self-contained stories come together to make an even bigger one. You can use parts to show that one chapter of your main character’s life has come to a close and a new one is beginning, or that you’re turning your book to a new, related story in another time or place.
How many chapters does your book need? Enough to tell a good story
Knowing the right number of chapters, the perfect chapter lengths, and how to structure them in your novel is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Chapters matter because they help the reader follow your story in a coherent, rhythmic way—and keep them wanting to read more. Whether you use long chapters or short ones, a handful or a hundred, the most important thing to keep in mind is the number one rule of writing: Hold my attention.