Pacing in a novel is something that is not discussed very often, and most readers do not even think much about it until they notice that a novel they are reading has terrible pacing. However, it is an important part of the novel-writing process.
Figuring out how many chapters in a novel you need in your book, what the chapter length should be, and the right chapter word count is something that authors have to think about. It is something taken for granted by readers and only really noticed when it is not right—and when it is not right, you lose the reader’s interest.
Pacing is Important
Think about watching a movie on a streaming service, and you suddenly get the urge for a snack or something to drink. Most of the time, we, as viewers, choose to wait until the end of a scene to pause the movie we are watching to get up and get whatever we want.
This is the same way in every chapter of a book. Each chapter break should encompass a scene so that the reader can put the book down at the end of a chapter and wait to read the next chapter without worrying about forgetting an important part of a mid-scene discussion or event. Chapter structure should revolve around these scenes.
Does Chapter Length Matter?
You should strive for a reasonably uniform chapter length for each chapter you write. The average chapter length should be about the same throughout the book. However, there are exceptions to this rule.
If you are sticking to a reasonably average chapter word count or chapter length, and then suddenly, you throw in a chapter that is much shorter or much longer, it tends to get the reader’s attention. It lets the reader know that something big is on the way.
Longer chapters usually mean that you have something epic about to occur, and the content needs to stay together. A reader’s attention span may not be all that long. Still, when longer chapters are introduced into content with a shorter average chapter length, they tend to perk up and stick it out, knowing that they need to pay attention in that longer chapter to find out what the big deal is and why it gets so much room.
Shorter chapters than what you are averaging in your book usually denote some short and alarming drama. Short chapters in the middle of longer chapters usually excite the reader because they feel like it will be a quick punch, followed by content in the next chapter that explains that punch you threw.
Structuring chapters to have a few long chapters and a few short chapters in between an average chapter word count breaks up any monotony in your story. These chapter breaks are a bit more exciting to the reader, especially if they prefer to pace their reading from one chapter to the next.
Should You Plan Out the Number of Chapters?
Things like chapter titles and the number of chapters you will have can be pre-planned, but often they are not crucial in writing the first draft. The first draft is more for recording the content and finishing the story. It is more important to tell the story well in the first draft phase of the writing process.
How many pages should be in a chapter?
Once you have finished your first draft and revised your work, you can start breaking things up according to the scene to create chapter breaks. There are no hard and fast rules for chapter length, but you should aim for something appropriate to the content, the genre, and the story arc. Also, keeping your chapters around the same length will be beneficial to both the writer and the reader.
When planning out your chapters, consider the genre and the content. Break things up according to the scene, but remember that thrillers, horror, and romance are often composed of shorter chapters, and fans of those specific genres are constantly looking for that. If you have many chapters of great length, they may get bored and move on to something they are more used to—in this case, shorter chapters.
How many words per chapter in a book?
The average word count for book chapters is a fairly wide range because there is such a difference in the number of book chapters depending upon genre and content. Typically, the average word count for a novel chapter is somewhere between 1500 and 5000 words. Most writers end up in the 3000 to 4000-word count range.
However, it should be noted that this is not a rule, and many bestselling authors do not, have not, did not, and never will pay attention to such things as averages for word count or page count when it comes to chapter breaks.
Kurt Vonnegut has written many books with incredibly short chapters. However, his work often involves a mini-story in the story he is telling, so he breaks it all up into short chapters. One of the wordiest writers, J.R.R. Tolkien, regularly wrote chapters well over 5000 words, and it did not keep his readers away.
Stephen King wrote Dolores Claiborne, a thriller novel with no page breaks, no chapter breaks, and no stops at all. It is one big continuous chapter. He did this because the story is supposed to be told from one woman’s view, in one sitting, in a police interview room.
Other Works of Fiction
So far, we have only looked at numbers for full-length fiction novels. But what if you wrote other sorts of fiction?
If you write a short story, you may wonder if you need chapters. The answer to this is that you have to look at the work and decide if a reader would want to or be able to digest a short story in one sitting. The same goes for a novella.
If you feel it is necessary to create chapters within these shorter works, make sure that you do so with the same guidelines as with a novel—break the chapters by scenes. The story pacing is more noticeable in shorter works of fiction, and getting those chapters and breaks right will matter more to readers because they will notice it more quickly than they would with a novel.
More Chapter Writing Advice
When it comes to the average number of chapters in a book, it is flexible because there is so much range and so few actual rules. The “average” number of chapters in a novel is about a dozen, but many novels out there have fewer and more chapters than a dozen.
From the first chapter to the last chapter, it is important that you pace correctly. That is really the only rule. A good chapter ties up the scene at the start and end of the chapter. You have either answered some questions, left the reader guessing, or promised them that something is coming that they should keep reading to discover.
Ways to End a Chapter
There are a few classic and often used methods of ending or tying up the end of a chapter. Whether you end up with more chapters than the average, or fewer chapters, what really matters is that those chapters serve a purpose.
The overall story arc of a novel is of utmost importance. Never give a reader a reason to put down a book for good at the end of a chapter. Give the reader a reason to take a break but make them want to return.
You do this by setting up the next major scene at the end of each chapter. While this is more challenging to do with short stories and novels, it can still be pulled off so that each plot point to come is set up at the previous chapter’s end.
This will likely give you chapters that are not of similar length all the time. You could have a novel chapter that spans three pages, followed by a chapter that is thirty pages long. As long as you are following and setting up the action of the next scene and trying not to drastically change the chapter length, the reader will not notice that you have slipped into the odd long or short chapter.
Ending chapters on a cliffhanger is another excellent tactic for breaking up a story and giving it good pacing. Most novels do this a time or two within each story. However, it is important to note that ending every chapter on a cliffhanger will likely bore the reader eventually because it becomes predictable.
3. Change in Point of View
You see this from time to time in fiction writing. There is more than one narrator, and they take turns telling the reader about the way they experienced an event in the story. Chapters can start with one narrator, and then the next chapter can start with a new narrator’s telling of past events or current events in the story.
Just be sure when doing this that you give each narrator individual chapters rather than shoving multiple points of view into a single chapter. That will quickly make for a confusing book that a reader will have to decipher. A reader does not want to work when reading. They want to be entertained.
Make sure that when you use this method of story structure, you make it obvious at each chapter’s end that the person is wrapping up their talk with the reader, and a new one is taking over.
Identify the new narrator either with chapter titles or by changing the speech patterns or settings immediately at the start of the new chapter. The reader’s journey should not be full of guesswork and confusion. Make it evident to the reader who is narrating.
The Goldilocks Rule
After you have written your story and are ready to go back through and separate it by chapters, remember the one rule in deciding how many chapters you should have in your book. It is called the Goldilocks Rule.
It is a simple rule. While there is no correct answer to how many chapters you must have, and word counts for chapters are more a goal and idea than a rule, the reader should end each chapter satisfied with its length.
It means that, like Goldilocks herself, who had an issue with being satisfied, your readers should never think to themselves at the end of a chapter: That was too short or too long.
Chapter size largely depends on the events of your story. Chapters work best when they break up the action and keep the pace moving. When in doubt, keep the story moving at a good clip by trying to write short chapters rather than long chapters so that the reader does not lose interest.
Chapter Count of Popular Fiction
To further illustrate that the number of chapters in a novel varies widely, the following are some of the most popular and famous books in modern fiction and how many chapters the books contain.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: 17 Chapters
- Twilight: 26 Chapters
- A Game of Thrones: 73 Chapters
- The Stand: 78 Chapters
- Cat’s Cradle: 127 Chapters
In the examples of the five well-known books above, the number of chapters varies significantly between them. What is interesting about this information is the differences between these books’ actual length or page count.
For example, Cat’s Cradle, the cult classic by Kurt Vonnegut, has a whopping 127 chapters but only 304 pages. That means a chapter break occurs, on average, after every two pages. Compare that to the 78 chapters within the 1325 pages of Stephen King’s uncut version of The Stand. It means that the average chapter length for this book is seventeen pages.
Both of these books are bestsellers. Both of these books have great pacing. What mattered to the reader was that the stories were appropriately broken up according to their content and plot points.
Ideally, each major event should have its own chapter. You do not generally want to write the whole story from start to finish without any scene breaks or scene transitions that are broken up by the creation of chapters.
Even a nonfiction book should have some chapter break to the overall story. Titling chapters in nonfiction is incredibly helpful so that someone looking for specific information can find it more easily.
How long should a chapter be? That is really up to you. Young adults tend to need and desire more breaks in a book because, let us face it, we live in a world that keeps everyone busy, but the younger generation is especially overwhelmed by school, work, technology, and fast-paced life.
Once you start writing, you should get a feel for how quickly you are covering major scenes and events. Early in the writing process should give you an idea of whether your novel is best suited for long chapters or short chapters or a variation between the two.