How long should a chapter be?

Don’t you just love it when you get to the end of a chapter and you just haveto start the next one? It may be late into the night and you may have something really important to get up for the following day, but you absolutely, positively have to read on.

From an author’s point of view, this is not just a sign that they’ve produced a humdinger of a book. It also shows that their chapter breaks are spot on. The place where a chapter ends is a brilliant device to create suspense or surprise. One of my favourite authors is Charles Dickens, whose novels were serialised in newspapers, chapter-by-chapter. He mastered the art of the dramatic, cliff-hanger ending, because he knew this would get the readers coming back week after week. The cliff-hanger is my preferred way to end chapters, although you can also choose to end chapters with a promise or hint of intrigue to come, or a resolution to a theme or story line. The choice is yours; but do enough to get the reader turning the page for more.

Chapter breaks really do matter. They are not just there for dramatic effect either; they are important because they help your readers through the story being told and set the pace. Chapters also play a role in resetting things, so the reader can take a break, absorb what they’ve read and then read on. Can you imagine reading the whole of Harry Potter without a single break?

Equally, the length of a chapter plays a role. Too long and your poor reader may become exhausted and confused. Worse still, they may give up altogether. Too short and the story may never get going, or might feel stilted and erratic.

OK, you may be thinking, what is ‘just right’, chapter length-wise? Well, the first rule of getting chapter length right is, well, there are no rules. Aiming for arbitrary blocks of writing with breaks at, say, every 4000 words would not exactly get the old creative juices flowing. It would produce a pretty poor outcome for the reader too. Chapters can be differing lengths and that’s as it should be. The length can differ by more than 1000 words too, which 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 does not meanwildlydiffering lengths. I would certainly keep chapters within a certain range of between 1500 to 5000 words, with the average at around 3000 to 4000 words. Again though, this is just a guideline. There are plenty of books that exceed the 5000 words per chapter barrier: we are looking at you Mr J.R.R. Tolkien. At the other end of the scale, some authors have produced chapters with just a sentence, or even only a couple of words. It is a great way to shock the reader and abruptly change the flow of a story. Use this technique sparingly though. It’ll lose its effect if you do it too much.

It’s also worth noting that the average word count figure can vary by genre. Chapters 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.

Before you get too bogged down with the numbers, it’s a good idea to plan each chapter properly. I like the idea of considering each chapter as a scene in a TV show, or play. Imagine the chapter 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 your chapter gets to that natural ‘commercial break’ moment, it is time to begin the next one.

Ultimately, it is the story that matters the most. If you try to pad out what seems like an uneventful chapter to beef up the word count, it will sound like waffle and bore the reader. It may even be better to take stock and ditch this sort of chapter altogether. Similarly, trying to compress an exciting, high action chapter to meet a word-count target risks destroying the crux of the book altogether. Maybe the scene could play out over two chapters with a natural break between.

My advice to anyone would be to focus on the story and not to get too bogged down in word count. You can always go back to it later, once the first draft is written and adjust the chapter breaks to alter the pacing and flow.