Book Writing AdviceBook, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How Long Should a Chapter Be?

Before we discuss the best word count of a chapter, let's first break down the purpose of chapters in a book. What is the point of having them? Are they more than just arbitrary breaks in the story? And why would an author choose to use them as opposed to making the story one continuing flow of words?

The point of chapters

Chapters serve several purposes in the context of a novel:

  • They pace the story to help build suspense.
  • They break the story into digestible chunks to help keep the reader engaged.
  • They allow the writer to switch perspectives smoothly.

Let's take a minute to look at how a chapter can do all three.

Setting the pace

Have you ever read a novel that seemed to move at breakneck speed—so much so that you were done reading it before you knew it? Look over that novel again and odds are high that the chapters in it are relatively short.

In her blog piece on chapter length and genre, Indie author Karen Woodward writes the following:

I was in a drugstore yesterday and stopped by the rows of books they have at the back of their magazine section. Right on the end was one by Mary Higgins Clark (incidentally, Clark, like Patterson, used to be a copywriter). For my article on James Patterson, I had gone through various books of his and calculated the average length of his chapters, which turned out to be around 640 words. As I stood in the drugstore isle, I opened one of Clark's books and looked at the length of her chapters. They were about the same length as Patterson's.

Karen Woodward

So, why is Woodward pointing out that authors like Clark and Patterson have short chapters? For starters, these authors are at the top of their game when it comes to writing nail-biting page turners that are impossible to put down and the short chapter word count helps them do it. That's not to say that short chapters are the only thing these authors have going for them that appeals to readers, but it's a big part of it, without doubt.

Digestible chunks for reader engagement

When I asked earlier why an author would choose to break up the story in chunks rather than one long continuing flow of words, did you imagine for a second what that would be like? Imagine reading a book without chapters and without breaks in the narrative to reset the location or perspective.

Undoubtedly, such a read would be frustrating on multiple levels. If the author wishes to switch settings or perspectives, he or she would have to do so with some sort of visual break such as multiple line breaks. Even then, it would be easy to confuse the reader, who might not recognize that such a shift is taking place. However, shifting perspective or setting with a new chapter allows the writing to be in digestible chunks that help the reader know to expect potential change in the narrative without confusion.

In addition to this benefit, a new chapter allows a reader to take a break in reading without losing his or her place in the story. This permits the reader to stay engaged in the story after leaving then returning to a book—without having to reread a section to be reminded of what is happening. Readers prefer having this option to take a break and chapters allow them to do just that.

Smooth perspective shifts

Switching point of view is a common tactic many writers use to keep their readers engaged. For example, bestselling author Gillian Flynn used a first-person point of view that switched between two people/perspectives in her surprise hit, Gone Girl.

Take a moment to imagine reading Gone Girl without chapter breaks. It would be a nightmare! Not only would the reader get confused about whose head they are in, but the pace of the story would be completely different. It just wouldn't work and is an excellent example of what a chapter does for a novel and how to determine its length.

Typical chapter word counts

Another thing to keep in mind regarding chapter word count is that it varies by genre. For example, in his blog Analyzing chapter lengths in fantasy fiction, indie author Jefferson Smith analyzes chapter word count from a collection of 13 fantasy fiction books, including Dune by Frank Herbert; The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, both by JRR Tolkien; and The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. In his analysis, he found that with this genre and based on the set of books he picked as representative of it, average chapter length was 6,100 words. He also determined that 95% of all the chapters in this collection were less than 11,000 words.

Now, compare those numbers to the ones stated earlier for James Patterson and Mary Higgins Clark (approximately 640 words per chapter) and you'll see the wide scope of average chapter length based on genre. For a few more comparisons, here are the average word counts of chapters for other novels:

  • The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (2,630 words)
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (3,488 words)
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (1,896 words)
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2,277 words)
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (4,052 words)
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (4,559 words)
  • Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (4,576 words)

Notice how even within genres, average word count of chapters will vary. For example, Twilight and The Giver were both written for a Young Adult (YA) audience but the word count per chapter is significantly different between the two books.

Okay, so how long should my chapter be?

Let's look back at the original question now: How long should a chapter be? By now, you should be able to see that not only does chapter word count matter—it varies significantly based on genre, as well as the author's writing style and pacing goals for the story.

What this means is that you will want to consider two things in determining your chapter length:

  1. What is typical for the genre of your book?
  2. What kind of pacing do you want?

As with many other facets of writing, there really isn't a "right" or "wrong" way to do it when it comes to chapter word count, and there have been successful writers publishing chapters ranging from 600 words to well over 11,000. As long as there are chapters in your book, and you recognize that longer chapters will slow the pacing while shorter ones will speed it up, you'll be able to determine the right chapter word length each time you begin and end a chapter in your book.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.