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Why Does Chapter Length Matter?
When you set the length of your chapters, you guide your reader’s journey through the whole story you’ve laid out in your novel. Chapter breaks function as scene breaks. When these breaks are properly paced, they function like edits in a feature film.
Most novels feature chapters of similar length throughout, but sometimes abnormally long chapters or abnormally short chapters can effectively change the pace of storytelling in key moments. If you write a novel that averages 3,000 words per chapter but, two-thirds of the way through the book, you insert a 400 word chapter, it is likely to grab your audience’s attention.
Chapter length is important, but it is not the most critical element of novel writing. Often a first draft will be written with minimal regard to chapter length, but by the time the final draft reaches the publisher, chapter size has been standardized throughout the book.
How Long Should a Chapter Be?
Standard chapter length varies depending upon genre. Shorter chapters dominate genres like thrillers (such as those by James Patterson and Dan Brown), mystery novels (such as those by Agatha Christie), and young adult literature (such as the novels of R.L. Stine). Longer chapters with a higher word count can be found in literary fiction, particularly in novels written in the period up to the early twentieth century.
If you’re an indie author embarking on novel writing for the first time, think of each chapter as a mini-story within the context of your whole book. It won’t be constructive to approach your first novel with a set of hard and fast rules about how long a chapter should be, so let that chapter’s story dictate the page count. Your readers won’t be counting the number of words in each chapter. Despite this, most people have an ineffable sense of story pacing and will respond positively when a chapter ends without overstaying its welcome.
5 Examples of Chapter Length
A survey of popular fiction from different eras reveals the following chapter word count for selected books:
- Middlesex: This critically renowned 2002 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides divides its 544 pages into 28 chapters. Its average word count is 6023 words per chapter.
- The Kite Runner: This 2003 New York Times bestseller by Khaled Hosseini divides its 372 pages into 25 chapters. Its average chapter length is 4282 words.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The iconic 1997 YA novel by J.K. Rowling is similar to The Kite Runner in that its average chapter contains 4559 words.
- The Hunger Games: Each book in this series by Suzanne Collins has an average chapter word count of 3694 words.
- The Handmaid’s Tale: On the lower end of things, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel averages only 2096 words per chapter—less than half of the average length of Middlesex chapters.
4 Tips on How to Write Chapters of Your Novel
The overall story arc of a novel is essential, but meticulous construction of individual chapters is just as important to the reader’s experience. If anyone knows this, it’s David Baldacci, author of numerous bestselling thrillers and mysteries; he takes incredible care to properly structure his novels from the first chapter to the last. Here are a few of his tips for structuring chapters:
- Keep scenes and chapters short. David keeps his chapters short—between three to five pages. This keeps the narrative moving at a brisk pace.
- Keep your audience asking questions. When a chapter answers a question from a previous chapter, you have the opportunity to introduce a new one. The new question will propel you through the next chapter. A classic example from crime fiction: “Will this serial killer strike again?” becomes “He struck again—now how many more people will he kill?” Keep this up over the course of a novel, and the book will be a page-turner.
- Make sure each chapter has a purpose that ties into the bigger story. If you lose sight of the overarching narrative of your novel, your individual chapters can begin to feel aimless. To keep your novel focused and on track, you should have a clear objective with every scene you write.
- Don’t fluff up the novel with irrelevant content. Scene-setting and vivid descriptions are critical for a compelling novel, but don’t get bogged down in the details. Focus on sustaining narrative momentum from chapter one onward.
- Make your scenes multitask. Driving the plot forward, conveying information, and deepening a character’s development are the three most critical jobs that a chapter can do. The short chapters you write should make use of at least one of these tools, and preferably more than one.
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