I’m in a lot of creative writing forums and some questions keep coming up in various forms.
I always come across questions like, how long should a chapter be? On average, how many words should my novel have? How many pages should a chapter have? How many words make up a novella?
These questions usually come from newbies who are worried about their novel’s chapters being too short or too long.
This yearning for knowledge is good, but to be honest, I’ve searched and failed to find definite answers.
Creative writing is—in a good way—almost a lawless arena; so no one can define prescribed requirements for chapter length.
Having said that, I believe there are tips and guidelines that we can share to help other writers write better chapters.
And that’s why I made this article and filled it with pointers and guidelines.
Why Does Chapter Length Matters?
I have read a couple of comments claiming that chapter length doesn’t matter, well, it does!
The thing is, the implication of ‘rules are not welcomed in creative writing’ is that you don’t have to force the ‘Do’s’ and ‘Don’ts’ on people.
Creative writing tips always have to respect context and in this case, I believe that chapter length matters in certain circumstances.
Just like paragraphs, you can use the length of your chapters to control your story’s pace and vary the rhythm.
Short chapters increase the pace of the narrative and the chapter breaks also act as scene breaks.
Writers usually insert short chapters in key scenes to effectively change the pace of storytelling and grab your audience’s attention.
So, although it might not be the most crucial element of your novel writing, chapter-length is still important. This also means that you don’t have to frequently stop midway through to check the length or word count because you’re worried about length—unless you planned to use that particular chapter to slow things down or ramp up the pace of the narrative.
How Many Words Should a Chapter Have?
I should repeat, stick to guidelines, rules are usually frowned upon in creative.
When writers ask me about minimums and upper limits, I always use averages and ranges. The average word count of a chapter ranges between 2,000 and 5,000 words and hinges on the type of story.
Lean chapters usually have a word count of below 2,000 words.
Lean chapters are perfect for action scenes and help you pace up the narrative. Some writers use shorter and hence faster chapters throughout the whole novel and the narrative usually seems snappy.
If you’re not careful as a writer, your short chapters could be full of choppy sentences.
So, try to avoid—as much as possible—going below 1,000 words. Usually, if the length of your chapters keeps falling below the 1000 mark, it might mean your passage is filled with abrupt transitions.
The implication is that your passage won’t have enough weight and depth, making your writing less impressive.
These are—somewhat—standard chapters and they lie in the 2,000 – 4,000 words range.
This is the range you find in most books regardless of the genre—and this chapter-length feels normal and you rarely notice the length.
Sometimes it’s good to stay in the comfort zone, and when it comes to chapter word count, this range is the comfort zone.
It’s a comfort for the writer, and a comfort zone for the reader.
Long chapters fall in the range of 4,000 – 5,000 Words. Written by a good writer, chapters that exceed the 4,000-word mark are typically in-depth and full of substance.
This range works well with epic fantasy and historical fiction because you can fit a lot of narration and dialogue in long chapters.
Longer chapters, though, bear the risk of turning readers off before they get deep into the book.
Is it just me or do very long chapters just feel banally long most of the time?
Tips on How to Write Chapters for Your Novel
Although I have repeatedly stressed the importance of chapter length, it should neither be seen as the central objective nor as a constraint.
The preceding statement is applicable when writing the first draft but as you edit your work, you can tweak the length to fit your reader’s expectations.
1. Stay in the Safe Zone (Not Always)
I believe in planning in every detail before writing—and it is okay if you plan to insert a snappy chapter.
However, if it’s not dependent on design, stick to a chapter word count that fits the average range.
By having an average word count you reduce the risk of boring your reader or failing to meet their expectations.
If your readers find the chapter just short enough to absorb and long enough to contain enough information, it’s good enough!
If you meet these expectations, they’ll become more comfortable and interested in reading your work.
2. Short enough, and long enough
This is—principally—similar to the previous point. Having the right chapter length is contingent upon how you present ideas or scenes within that chapter or the entire book.
For nonfiction, it is vital to use your chapters to break your overarching theme into digestible ideas. Readers want to grasp the content so that they can gain some knowledge.
Once they realize that these expectations can be met by your published piece, readers will want the whole thing.
We should also recognize the fact that complex ideas might need bulky chapters. However, large chapters are likely to turn off the reader because they’re tedious and not suitable for this age’s ever-dwindling attention span.
3. Mix It Up
Why should I always write normal chapters? Why can’t I differentiate?
Remember! No rules but guidelines. (For the 1000th time).
Having diversity won’t hurt you; in fact, a mix of short and long chapters helps you control the rhythm of your book.
For example, inserting a short chapter after a long one helps refresh the reader’s mind, in readiness for the next chapter.
So, you should have long and short chapters, as well as plenty of average ones.
Do not overload your work with either the long chapters or short ones. Reading shouldn’t feel like tilling drying soil in the 16th century.
Nor should they be served jumpy, shallow stuff.
As you write more and more, you start to realize that type of chapter you write is hugely determined by the story, and—to a certain extent—the writing style.
4. Mind the Context
We can talk about chapter lengths all day, but, to be honest, the length depends on the measure of details needed to explain an idea.
Sometimes, amidst all the concerns over the reader’s expectations, we should relax and let the context dictate the length.
We shouldn’t always worry about chapters being too short or too long. Consider the context, and don’t force matters.
For example, if you use a chapter to narrate a snappy fighting scene and move on to introduce another thing in the next chapter, then a short chapter will do (i.e., below 1,000 words).
If you think it’s unnecessary to give it a whole chapter, you can combine it with another chapter that has closely interrelated issues.
But you shouldn’t always combine chapters just because they cover interrelated issues. You could just end up with a bloated chapter that’s not fun to read at all!
Blend the whole story, but tell it in chapters that just feel right.
5. Take Advantage of Chapter Breaks
Chapter breaks are essential when structuring chapters. Not only do they make the longest chapters feel less tedious, but they also make it look less intimidating.
A Chapter covers a single idea, and the writer strings together several sections—in that chapter—to make the general idea as coherent as possible.
These sections, when broken into digestible pieces, make the passage look manageable.
Tips on Writing a Chapter Break?
You can’t always have an architectural plan for detail in your novel, but there are a few ways you can set up the end of each section.
Here are some tips:
1. Serve a Presage
Give the reader a hint of what the future holds, a reminder of big things to come.
This sort of break looks forward and intimate more intrigue in the next chapter by presaging things to come.
The promises made by this type of ending are not always in the form of an upcoming adventure, sometimes it functions as a prophecy of impending peril or trouble.
2. Look Back
This is—in essence—the opposite of the first point. Instead of promising the reader of impending adventure or peril, the ending looks back to the past.
Let’s say our MC, Harry the Bear, becomes a general in the army in this chapter, we could look back to the past, to a 10-year-old Harry who promised his mom to protect her and the country after his dad died on the front line.
3. Switch between Protagonists
In a scenario where you have two main principal characters (dual-protagonists), it is expected that scenes and chapters will shift from one protagonist to the other.
Let’s say, instead of one principal character—Harry the Bear—we have two. The other, Jack Dawson, a civilian destined to become Harry’s friend and help Harry prevent World War III. Since both characters play significant roles, we would switch Harry to Jack—and use the scene or chapter endings to provide hints of these switches.
The hint doesn’t always have to be blaring, you can be as subtle as you like. As long as the hint goes above the average reader’s comprehension.
4. The Classic Cliffhanger
This is a frequent and exciting way to end a scene or chapter if you plan it well.
Come to think of it, most writers don’t plan to have a cliffhanger at the end of the chapter, but most chapters end this way because the suspense makes the next chapter arousing.
The readers want to know what happens next and considering you’ve already given a nip, they want to have more.
Charles Dickens held his readers spellbound with serialized novels in the 1800s. Week after week, his cliffhangers (which could end anywhere, even during a fight scene) kept his readers wanting more.
He would end a chapter mid-scene to keep his readers guessing what outcome awaited them in the next installment.
I would have said that a cliffhanger resembles a honey trap, but we love our readers; so, let’s just call it an ingenious way to keep the reader flipping through the pages, thirstily.
Word of caution to writers, don’t be greedy with this trick, use it sparingly; otherwise, it becomes boring.
Tips on How to Write Chapters of Your Novel
Having the most essential tips for chapter length, I feel like it’s ripe to give you a few brief tips on how to write chapters.
So, here are a few pointers on structuring chapters:
- Vary chapter length and try to keep scenes short. I can’t emphasize this enough, shorter scenes keep the narrative progressing at a fast, fresh pace.
- Each chapter should contribute to the coherency of the story. We first have the overall story, then it’s broken into chapters, which are—in turn—divided into smaller sections. The goal is to build the story from the smallest section and combine all the chapters to paint the bigger picture.
- Each chapter should provide a solution (or solutions). Even when you use cliffhangers, make sure the next chapter answers a particular question from a previous chapter. You can then introduce a new one which you can answer in the following sections.
- Set multiple goals for a single chapter or scene. Plan your chapter to advance the plot, give the reader more information, and contribute to a character’s development. Even when the chapter or scene is short, it should perform more than one task (this is easier when ‘you show and don’t tell’).
One thing to take away from this article is that average chapter lengths are driven by how much information is required for an average reader to understand the chapter topic. The length also depends on the average attention span of the target audience. We can’t measure attention span (or maybe it has been done already), but we take a good guess if we understand the audience.
Don’t let ‘the required word count’ lead you to fill your novel with irrelevant content. Scene-setting and vivid descriptions are essential ingredients for a compelling novel, but should rather concentrate on nourishing the momentum of the narrative momentum from chapter to chapter.
You also have to mind the context, go for the diversity of chapter lengths, and use breaks wisely. In most cases though, everything sorts itself out!