Chapter Length Matters. Here's Why
Stop us if you’ve experienced this before: the clock strikes 8pm and you realize that you really need to pick up your drycleaning. But you’re right in the middle of your book! Well, you’ll put the book down when you get to the end of this chapter, you reason.
30 minutes afterward, you can’t resist taking a quick peek to see where you are in the chapter. That’s when you discover: you’re only a quarter of the way through.
If you’ve ever felt this sinking feeling before, you’ve already got a sense of why chapter word count should be so darn important to writers. Lengthy chapters can make readers want to give up on reading a story. Only cavemen would say, "CAVEMAN WRITE LONGER CHAPTER, CAVEMAN GET BIGGER CHICKEN. ONLY IDIOT FALL ASLEEP DURING IT!”
So, what’s the sweet spot for an average chapter’s word count — and why should it matter to you? Let’s find out.
Why does the word count of a chapter matter?
Chapter breaks aren’t blocks of space that the writer just arbitrarily decided to insert. Instead, they:
- help keep your readers in the story;
- help reset the story so that there’s no information overload. (Imagine watching all of The Lord of the Rings at once!);
- help you adjust the pacing of the story and create suspense.
Knowing this, why does chapter length matter? Imagine that you’re a conductor for a moment. If your story is a melody, your chapters will make up its underlying beat or rhythm. So whether your chapters are short or extended affects the pacing of your story, and the way the reader experiences it. Do you want the pace to be brisk to the reader and skip in a staccato? Or do you want to keep your readers suspended on a whole note that carries on for some time?
A chapter break also tells the reader to mentally prepare for some sort of shift. If your chapters are too short, that might make for an erratic experience. You might not be able to build up the forward momentum that your story needs to click for the reader.
Long chapters, on the opposite end of the spectrum, risk dropping the reader out of the story forever. That’s because a chapter break allows readers to take a quick breather in between words. If we made this one block of text go on for twenty pages or thirty pages on end, for instance, our best guess is that your eyes would glaze over and your skin would fall away and your fingernails would rot while you turn into The Skeleton With a Burning Cigarette, forcing yourself to continue reading a slab of text that just never seemed to stop. Or — worse still — you’d give up and put the text aside altogether.
Therefore, the word count of a novel is crucial if you want your book to be fit for publication. But the word count of a chapter matters if you want your story to flow right. Of course, when you're writing the first draft of your story, you want to just get your words out on paper. But chapter word count is something that you want to keep in mind for future edits.
So, with all of this in mind, is there actually an average chapter word count you should aim for?
How long should a chapter be?
On Meg Cabot’s Frequently Asked Questions page, she says: “You can write as short or as extended a chapter as you want, with as many scenes in each that you want. You can write no chapters if you prefer.” Like we mentioned before, too, authors can (and will) purposefully use chapter spans to their advantage when it comes to pacing and structure. Shorter chapters in a row will quicken the tempo, for instance, while extended chapters will do the opposite.
That said, chapter word counts do tend to fall within a certain range. To find out how long should a chapter be, we examined books from a wide variety of genres and eras.
From these numbers, we can establish some guidelines: the average word count of a chapter typically falls somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 words, with 3,000–4,000 being the most common sweet spot.
Does this mean that every chapter must end up somewhere in this range? Heck no. Books with chapters on the shorter side become bestsellers all the time. (Kurt Vonnegut or Dan Brown, for instance.) And are there books with chapters that consistently score above 5,000 words? Of course! Can we introduce you to J.R.R. Tolkien?
But it's safe to say that 1,500-5,000 is the normal range for most books. To see the way that authors use chapter lengths to impact pacing over the course of a whole book, we also mapped out the word count of every chapter in four famous books:
And as you can see, it varies, depending on the story. The average chapter word count of these novels falls within the 2,000-5,000 range. As Persuasion progresses, Jane Austen seems to elongate the chapters, building them up on a crescendo. George R.R. Martin and Harper Lee keep things more evenly paced in A Game of Thrones and To Kill A Mockingbird, respectively. The chapters in The Fault In Our Stars, meanwhile, grow shorter just as Hazel's time with Augustus shortens. Ultimately, the way you chapter your book depends on the effect that you want to achieve at any given point in your novel.
How do you write the chapter break?
Of course, sometimes the best way to chapter your book won’t crystallize until you start editing. So if you want your chapter breaks to pack a punch (whether it’s your first, second, or even fifth draft), these are a few of the ways you can frame the end of a chapter.
1. The Promise
Broadly speaking, a chapter break does one of two things: look forward or look back. The former promises more intrigue in the next chapter, often by foreshadowing things to come. This is from the ending of Chapter 3 in The Hobbit:
The next morning was a midsummer’s morning as fair and fresh as could be dreamed: blue sky and never a cloud, and the sun dancing on the water. Now they rode away amid songs of farewell and good speed, with their hearts ready for more adventure, and with a knowledge of the road they must follow over the Misty Mountains to the land beyond.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
The promise is one of much more adventure in the coming chapters. Of course, its strategic placement at the end of the chapter also sets a reader’s irony senses tingling, telling them that things might not be all so bright and cheery for Bilbo and the gang soon.
2. The Resolution
Looking back on past events is another common way to end a chapter. This technique can simply bring the scene to a close, or it can be a way to summarize the chapter. In the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling re-familiarizes us with Harry Potter, an unusual boy wizard who misses some school friends. In this case, the conclusion of the chapter nicely wraps up the themes and motifs she’s just introduced:
Deciding that he’d worry about the Hogsmeade form when he woke up, Harry got back into bed and reached up to cross off another day on the chart he’d made for himself, counting down the days left until his return to Hogwarts. Then he took off his glasses and lay down; eyes open, facing his three birthday cards.
Extremely unusual though he was, at that moment Harry Potter felt just like everyone else — glad, for the first time in his life, that it was his birthday.
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Though it’s normally a bit of a cliché to close a chapter by getting the character to fall asleep, Rowling does a clever twist on it by making this an occasion worth describing.
3. The Cliffhanger
You bet we’ve all experienced our fair share of screaming matches with this sort of chapter ending. Charles Dickens, whose serialized novels got readers in the 1800s coming back every week, was a master at writing cliffhangers — sometimes even in the middle of fight scenes.
Here is an example from Chapter 5 of Great Expectations:
But I ran no farther than the house door, for there I ran head-foremost into a party of soldiers with their muskets, one of whom held out a pair of handcuffs to me, saying, “Here you are, look sharp, come on!”
— Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
This time, the chapter ends mid-scene. In addition, this particular cliffhanger rests on a physical act — the soldiers approaching Pip. But it could just as well be a dawning mental or emotional realization that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Whatever shape the cliffhanger takes, it’s the anticipation you generate that will keep your audience eagerly flipping those pages.
One caveat: you can only use this technique sparingly, or else it’ll start to grow repetitive and lose its impact.
4. The Era or POV Jump
If you’re writing a book that uses multiple perspectives or jumps time periods, the chapter break is an obvious opportunity to switch things up. One of the most prominent practitioners is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which cycles between a total of 31 characters. Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park also uses the chapter break effectively to shift POVs:
Park couldn’t think of a way to get rid of her on the bus. Or a way to get rid of himself. So he put his headphones on before the girl sat down and turned the volume all the way up.
Thank God she didn’t try to talk to him.
— Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park
Then the next chapter segues smoothly into Eleanor’s take on things, keeping readers intrigued by revealing a new angle on previous events. When there are more than two POV characters, you'll need to make sure that you distribute time equitably between them while making each character interesting in their own right, so that one 7,000-word chapter with a boring character doesn't slow the whole story down.
That said, there are always exceptions, which takes us to our next important point...
Guidelines, not rules
As with everything else when it comes to writing a book, these are only guidelines—not rules. Though the average word count of a chapter is around 2,000 – 5,000 words, it all depends on your story. (We can't emphasize this enough.)
There are plenty of books that purposefully play with the word counts of their chapters. The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2015, possesses 12 chapters that steadily decrease in word count to mirror the waning of the moon. (The first chapter of The Luminaries is 360 pages. Its final chapter is two pages.) Then there’s William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which Vardaman’s famous five-word sentence, “My mother is a fish,” is the whole of Chapter 19. Or consider Fahrenheit 451, which contains a Part I and Part II — but no chapters.
So, don’t write a chapter with only one eye on your story and the other on your word count. When you're outlining your book and writing your first draft, concentrate on making the content of your story the best it can be. Then you can always circle back to adjust word counts afterward, with pacing and reader experience in mind.
What do you think about chapter word counts? Have any tips for your fellow writers? Share your thoughts in the comments below!