You’ve been writing a really intense chapter. The scenes keep piling up, but you’re still not finished, and you’ve already reached eight thousand words.
That’s when a thought occurs to you. How long should a chapter be? Is your chapter too long? Would the reader lose interest at this point? Would they look at how many pages are left and get horrified at the idea of having twenty pages to go?
I know the struggle. In fact, I found myself in this exact same situation a few months ago, which is why I decided to research how long a chapter should be.
Here’s everything I discovered!
What is the purpose of a chapter?
Imagine going for a run. After a few minutes of jogging, you’re out of breath and need to stop for a moment. Then you walk for a bit, only to try sprinting next, and then you take a break again.
Those breaks that allow you to recharge your energy? Those are the pauses between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another one.
The purpose of a chapter is to break down your story into digestible bites that keep the momentum going while letting the reader take a breath from time to time. It’s a bit like having a ten-minute break between the different acts of a theatre play – the audience has a chance to relax before they turn their focus back to the stage.
Not only that but a chapter also serves as an important tool for plot development. Chapters tend to begin and end on different notes, and typically, some kind of a shift occurs in that space – a shift that drives the story forward and keeps the reader engaged.
What’s more, the length of your chapter tends to determine the pacing and flow of the story. Longer chapters evoke a sense of slow-building excitement, while short chapters are more of a “bang-bang-bang” nature – they give the story a quick and thrilling pace.
When it comes to non-fiction, the main point of a chapter is to pass along different chunks of knowledge in different sections. Chapters allow you to build concepts upon one another and create an overarching theme that binds different strings of ideas together.
So, without further ado… How long should a chapter be?
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How long should a chapter be?
First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no rule for chapter length. There are only averages and recommendations. If 10,000-word chapters perfectly fit the theme and pace of your novel, there’s no reason to break them down further just to fit in with other authors.
On average, though, chapters are anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 words. This gives you enough space to set the scene, create a new shift, and move the story toward its next chapter. The same applies to non-fiction.
However, chapter-length also differs by genre. Thrillers and mystery novels tend to have shorter chapters – many of them ending on cliffhangers – to keep the suspense going, while literary fiction or fantasy books can afford longer word counts due to the slower pace and build-up.
Again, if your chapters are shorter than 2,000 words or longer than 5,000, it’s not the end of the world.
Have you ever read Harry Potter? Those chapters are long. In fact, Detention with Dolores in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is over 9,000 words, while the average chapter length in the series is between 5,000 and 6,000 words.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are books like The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab, where chapters can be as short as three pages.
It all depends on what kind of story you’re telling. If you’re making a lot of jumps between different points of view and timelines or if one chapter always equals one scene, writing short chapters makes a lot of sense, and whilst anything below 1,000 words is usually seen as too short, there are authors out there who can make it work.
The same applies the other way around – 8,000 words may seem too long a chapter, but if it includes three different scenes, all of which are packed with action, the reader will blaze through it.
Let’s look at some more examples, shall we?
Chapter Length: Examples
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: around 3,700 words per chapter
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: around 2,100 words per chapter
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: around 2,277 words per chapter
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: around 5,232 words per chapter
Remember that these are averages – one book doesn’t have to comprise chapters of the same length.
While it’s a good idea to keep your chapters similar in length for pacing purposes, it’s also completely okay to make them longer or shorter based on the plot. For example, a large battle scene will naturally take up more space than a private conversation between two characters.
RELATED READ: How to start a story: Tips and ideas
What’s the best way to close a chapter?
The endings of chapters aren’t random. Most of the time, a chapter either wraps up its events or invites the reader to keep on reading, for example by creating a cliffhanger or a sense of excitement.
In fact, many chapters manage to do both at the same time. Here’s a very clear example from the first chapter of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang:
“She had bribed a teacher. She had stolen opium. She has burned herself, lied to her foster parents, abandoned her responsibilities at the store, and broken a marriage deal. And she was going to Sinegard.”
Finally, remember that your chapter length may change throughout the editing process, and whilst it’s important to break your story down into different sequences and have a well-crafted plot, the most vital thing right now is to put the story down on paper.
You can make all the necessary edits later. First, write the whole book. Then feel free to play around with chapter length, and don’t forget that the quality of your story is much more important than word count.