“How long should chapters be?” is the proverbial “piece of string” question but I’ve seen writers asking it on writing forums so I thought I’d have a go at answering it. The definitive answer, of course, is that there is no fixed length any chapter should be. It needs to be determined by each individual author and depends on their preference, the type of book being written and how the chapter reads when it’s eventually written.
But there are some identifiable methods that it might be useful to list if you are struggling with this question.
Write the First Chapter and Use Its Length as a Model
Rather than setting an arbitrary target, sometimes it’s easier to begin writing without knowing where one chapter will end and another will begin. By the time you’ve completed the first chapter, you might have had the decision made for you and you can simply continue on using that length as a model.
Set a Word Count Target
Having all chapters roughly the same word length can make for a consistent reading experience, especially for those readers who like to end the day by reading a couple of chapters in bed before turning out the light and nodding off. It also gives you as a writer a number to work towards and provides a structure for your novel.
In my most recently completed novel, Black Spot, I aimed for a chapter length of approximately 1,100 words and I didn’t worry excessively if I went slightly shorter (around 1,000 words) or slightly longer (around 1,200 words). I’ve continued this through into the sequel, which I’ve written about half of. Because the books are aimed at a young adult audience, the chapters needed to be long enough to qualify as comprising a proper chapter book but not too long for the younger members of that young adult demographic.
Set a Page Length Target
Even though setting a page length target might sound a lot like setting a word count target, they can actually be very different. A page that contains dialogue heavy text is likely to have a smaller word count and a page that contains prose heavy text is likely to have a larger word count.
In Trine, the literary crime novel I have half completed, I set a four page target for each chapter. The result is chapters that vary anywhere from about 1,800 words to 2,400 words but it has again given me a very concrete goal to work towards.
Use One Plot Point per Chapter
Allocating one plot point to each chapter means you will have a very evenly structured novel without too much happening in one chapter and not enough happening in the next. If you like to plan all your plot points in advance, this might suit you. If you’re more like me and tend to write and see where it takes you, this option will be less useful.
Use Contrasting Short and Long Chapters for Effect
There’s nothing that says chapters all have to be the same length. In fact, using a combination of short and long chapters can result in a very effective contrast. The shortest chapters I can remember were each one word long, just single months of the year, and conveyed the passing of time while the main character lapsed into an all-encompassing numbness. Combined with longer chapters, I found this extremely effective, effective enough to have remembered it years after I read the book, which was Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon.
Perhaps the most important point is once you have made a choice about the chapter length you are going to aim for, don’t get hamstrung by it. If you need one chapter considerably shorter or considerably longer than all the others, do it. Don’t worry about sticking to arbitrary rules. Using one of the above methods can be a handy tool for starting the process and keeping it going, but it’s only useful as long as it’s working.
So do whatever works for you. And as a lot of writers know, sometimes this means just abandoning every rule ever set down, ignoring the “experts” and doing what feels right.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing