When writing a novel, one crucial decision to make is how many words in a chapter-length. Chapter word count is something that most readers never think about, but whether a writer has long chapters or short chapters can affect the way readers receive the author. While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to how many words are in a chapter, book chapters are an essential element of a successful book.
Why Does Chapter Length Matter?
People today are very busy, and even the most dedicated bookworm still has to endure the other obligations in life. Whether it’s work, family, social activities, or other obligations, people simply don’t have the time to open a full-length novel and read it from cover to cover in one sitting.
Writing chapters assists the reader because when a book has chapter breaks, the reader can set reading goals that will better guarantee that the reader will return to the book and eventually finish it.
Literary fiction tells a story, so the chapters have to be broken up appropriately so that a chapter break doesn’t occur in an unnatural place. The writer needs to design chapter lengths to coincide with what is going on in the story; otherwise, the reader may become confused or bored with the book and put it down.
If you have a long novel chapter that a reader can’t realistically read within a short time span, they may not come back to read the next chapter. If your average word count for a chapter is reasonable, the reader is more likely to read one chapter and then return when they have time to read more novel chapters.
On the other side of the coin, if you have shorter chapters, the chapter ending may seem disjointed, and the entire story may seem confusing. It’s a delicate and sometimes finicky process, but a necessary one.
When you are traditionally published, the literary agents know the importance of chapter length and can give you advice and suggestions on how many chapters your novel should have and where you should insert chapter breaks. If you are self-publishing, you will most likely have to make those decisions by yourself as an indie author.
What is the Average Chapter Length?
Most full-length novels have an average chapter word count between 3,000 and 5,000 words. There are, of course, instances in nearly every book where one chapter may be much shorter than the next chapter, but most writers try to stay within the parameters of the average chapter word count.
A chapter length averages between 3,000 to 5,000 words in adult novels. This can change because simply inserting a chapter break every 5,000 words can make your book chapters seem disjointed. There needs to be a natural rhythm and fluidity for your chapter lengths. Otherwise, the reader’s experience can be altered negatively.
How Long Should a Chapter be?
Individual Chapters Call for Different Lengths
Average chapter length is more of a general guideline rather than a concrete rule because each chapter break needs to make sense to the overall plot. The story is more important than the length of the chapters. As a writer, you have to find that sweet spot of a well-told story with chapters that aren’t too many pages long, without sacrificing the content of the writing and ruining the experience for readers.
The General Idea for Chapters
When you write a story, it’s a good idea to keep the average chapter length in mind, but accept the fact that sometimes, you have to throw that idea right out the window. Each chapter should tell a mini-story and should be a natural stopping point. This means that sometimes you’ll have longer chapters, and sometimes you’ll have much shorter chapters.
Adult fiction has the same average length for chapters as any other novel, but word counts sometimes fall by the wayside so that the content of the story itself doesn’t suffer. When a chapter ends, the reader should be able to put the book down and not feel as though they are missing vital information to the story.
A cliffhanger chapter ending is one thing, but if your goal is to write chapters that are all the same length, you’re almost certainly going to disappoint readers because key points aren’t divided in a natural way. The flow of their reading will have been disturbed, and that disconnects the reader from the story.
You should strive for a similar length in your chapters, but what really matters is that chapters are like scene breaks. Successful authors understand that there are other ways to break up the story and give a good stopping point option to readers. Subheadings and sections can be implemented in tandem with chapters if you feel that other chapters are either too short or too long if not broken up sufficiently.
When to Determine Chapter Size
Should you have long chapters or short chapters? Where should your chapters end? When should your first chapter end? The short answer to all of these questions is simply: End chapters where it makes sense to end them.
Many authors wait until the completion of their first draft to go back and decide where to begin and end chapters. Many successful authors write the whole story and then go back and figure out where they can logically break up the story into smaller pieces and insert chapter breaks. Each novel chapter can either end at a word count, or you can choose the natural stopping points within the story and insert the breaks there.
It is often easier to determine chapter length after the story is done to not rely on word count alone. It can put unnecessary pressure on a writer if you know that you need to end a chapter within 5,000 words.
You may get to an ending for a section that feels natural, and then when you reread it, find that you need to go back and add more content or backstory or explain past events in the story. This will throw your word count off, and you’ll have to start over with inserting chapters. Waiting until the end of the writing is usually the suggested way to go.
Examples of Chapter Length
The following are some examples of well-known writers and their tendencies when it comes to chapter length. While reading, think about the writers you enjoy reading the work of and whether you’ve ever noticed how long or how short they make their chapters.
Rapid Fire Crime Fiction
James Patterson is a best-selling novelist, and he is known for his crime fiction. Most of his books contain an average chapter length of 300-500 words. There are well over 100 chapters in most of his books.
In Patterson’s writing, he keeps his chapters short, and his readers have come to expect much from him. His audience knows that they can sit down, open a Patterson novel, and read ten chapters, then take a break. They can split up their reading because they know he keeps his chapters so short.
Other mystery novels along the same lines as Patterson also tend to have short chapters. Mystery novels can end on a cliffhanger, and that draws interest, unlike many other genres, that would leave the audience feeling abandoned or even angry. When a chapter ends on a cliffhanger in a mystery novel, it’s far more acceptable.
Long-Winded Youth Fiction Series
Although most young adult fiction, the chapters are shorter in length than the average 3,000 to 5,000 words. This was not the case for J.K. Rowling in her bestselling Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the chapters average almost 4,600 words. The word counts for the average chapter are much longer than most chapters in a young adult novel, but Rowling opted to have fewer chapters overall not to break up the story too much.
Epic fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien averaged over 7,000 words per chapter in his novels. That’s right; each chapter was the length of the standard short story. Because he wrote such epic novels of long journeys, he wrote to make the reader feel as if they were also on a journey. It would take a long time to get to the next point, but you had to be dedicated to the adventure and stick it out with beloved characters like Samwise, Frodo, Aragorn, and Bilbo.
Long chapters are almost standard for fantasy. George R. R. Martin, while not as long-winded as Tolkien, still qualifies for chapters being the length of most short stories. His Game of Thrones series has an average chapter word count of 5,000.
One Long Story with No Breaks
Stephen King, a bestselling author of over fifty novels, is usually a fan of not only chapters but also of parts, sections, and subheadings. Most of the time, his works are broken up so that his novels of sometimes intimidating length can be digested by his audience in snippets and shorter sittings.
In his bestselling novel Dolores Claiborne, King strayed from his normal chapter set-up and wrote the entire novel with no breaks. There are no chapters, sections, or breaks whatsoever in this book. There isn’t even double spacing between paragraphs.
The novel tells the story of Dolores, a woman who has been arrested for the murder of both her husband and her employer. It is told in first-person point of view, and it is one long monologue. This 305-page novel is one continuous story. There’s no stopping point.
How did readers respond to this story that never stops to take a breath? It was the number one bestselling book of 1992 in the United States. It gave the reader a feeling of tension that built up. While it may have been difficult to find a place to put down the book for the day or the evening, most readers of this thriller probably felt as though they were sitting right there in the interrogation room with the middle-aged widower accused of a double murder.
While this is atypical of most successful authors, it wasn’t the first time King had done it. Over ten years earlier, in 1981, he wrote Cujo, the story of a mother and toddler stuck for days in a hot car being terrorized by a rabid St. Bernard, in the exact same fashion. That book is 309 pages.
This technique of no chapters seems to work when you want the reader to feel trapped or stuck along with the characters. When there’s no break in the story, a little more of the air seems to get sucked out of the room, and the reader feels less like a reader and more like a silent observer.
It’s a technique that shouldn’t be overused and certainly should not be the norm. King found out that it worked with Cujo, did it again with Dolores Claiborne, and then stopped.
Dystopian novels often get away with having short and choppy chapters. Because they are often full of action, despair, or high levels of emotion, the reader can become distressed and is often fine with reading these novels in snippets rather than tearing them off in large chunks.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is 311 pages and has 46 chapters. This means that, on average, there are about 7 pages per chapter. The story is full of uncomfortable scenes of abuse against women, the disintegration of life as we know it in society, and the struggle of one handmaid to break free of the station she’s been appointed.
Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel, The Hunger Games, has a chapter word count that averages 3,600 words. There are nine chapters, and they are each divided further into three parts each. While Collins has said that she did this due to her experience and background writing plays, this three-act structure was doubtlessly appreciated by readers.
In this novel, society has been divided into 12 “districts,” and they’re being neglected and essentially starved by the government. Each year, the Hunger Games occur, and “tributes,” who are children representing each district, must fight to the death to ensure food and resources for their district. It is a sad book that is often anger inspiring. Breaking the book up into smaller sections provides the reader a chance to decompress from the heaviness that goes hand in hand with dystopian novels.
How Many Pages Does a Chapter Have?
The number of pages in a chapter varies depending on many factors such as the number of scenes, font style and size, margins, spacing, and page size. A 1500-word piece can result in four to five pages when printed. However, it is important to mention that different authors have different preferences when it comes how long their chapters are. These preferences on chapter lengths affect the number of pages a chapter has.
Conventionally, when a publishing company edits and publishes your book, they expect you to write approximately eight to ten pages for a chapter.
A nonfiction book is much like any other book in the fact that there’s no hard rule regarding how many words each chapter should be. However, the standard nonfiction book is approximately 50,000 words. Therefore the chapters within typically contain about 4,000 words.
When writing nonfiction, make sure that the words per chapter aren’t so calculated that important events or topics are chopped up, making the writing hard to understand or follow. Unlike novels, this genre is fact-based, and there is very little creative wiggle room within the writing, so chapters should be inserted where they make the most sense, rather than insisting upon a word or page count.
How Many Paragraphs in a Chapter
The number of paragraphs within a chapter varies depending on the book style, author or publisher. The number of paragraphs in a chapter varies in accordance with the needs of the content or the flow of the story. Some chapters may be longer than others, which means that they would require more paragraphs.