What is the optimum length for a chapter?

Chapter length is important. If it is too long the reader may become exhausted and confused. Worse still, they may give up altogether. Alternatively, if too short, the story may never get going, or might feel stilted and erratic.

Optimum chapter lengths vary according to genre

The word count for a chapter in a full length novel or work of non fiction is usually within a certain range of between 1500 to 5000 words, with the average at around 3000 to 4000 words. This will, however, vary according to genre. Chapter lengths in books for younger readers often err on the shorter side, while fantasy novels tend to let it flow, sometimes up to 10,000 words per chapter. Think here of books such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Chapter lengths can be used as a creative device

Occasionally authors will write a chapter of just a sentence, or even only a couple of words. It is a great technique to shock the reader and abruptly change the flow of a story. It is wise to use this approach sparingly though. It’ll lose its effect if relied upon too much.

Not every chapter has to be the same length

Aiming for arbitrary blocks of writing with chapter breaks at, say, every 4000 words will not produce a terribly creative outcome. Chapters can differ in length by more than 1000 words. This can be a useful device when it comes to pacing. A series of shorter chapters will speed up the tempo, while a lengthy descriptive one will slow things down. However, differing lengths should not mean wildly differing lengths.

Forward planning ensures chapters stay within target

Plan each chapter properly to help keep within a target word count. It can help to consider each chapter as a scene in a TV show, or play. Chapters can be visualised as a mini story, where the ending is like the moment when the TV show cuts to a commercial break after something significant is revealed, or an important question is posed. When a chapter gets to that natural ‘commercial break’ moment, it is time to begin the next one.

Chapter breaks really do matter. They are not just there for dramatic effect either; they are important because they help readers through the story being told and set the pace.

Chapter breaks reset the narrative

The place in the narrative where a chapter breaks plays a role in resetting things, so the reader can take a break, absorb what they’ve read and then read on. Imagine reading the whole of Harry Potter without a single break.

The exact place in the narrative where a chapter ends is a brilliant device to create suspense or surprise. Charles Dickens, whose novels were serialised in newspapers, chapter-by-chapter, mastered the art of the dramatic, cliff-hanger ending. This was what encouraged readers to come back week after week. An alternative is to end chapters with a promise, or hint, of intrigue to come. Another option is a resolution to a theme or story line. The choice is in the hands of the author; but should be enough to get the reader turning the page for more.

The story comes first

Ultimately, it is the story that matters the most. Padding out what seems like an uneventful chapter to beef up the word count, is a mistake. It will read like waffle and bore the reader. Similarly, trying to compress an exciting, high action chapter to meet a word-count target risks destroying the crux of the book altogether. It might be better for the scene to play out over two chapters with a natural break between.

During the first draft, it is better to focus on the story and not to get too bogged down in word count. It is always possible to revisit and refine chapter length during the editing process. Likewise, the position of chapter breaks can be shifted to alter the pacing and flow.