How Long Should Chapters Be?
Working with a terrific young writer, the topic of chapter length has been on my mind. When you write a novel how long should your chapters be?
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s examine fiction chapter lengths and what those lengths mean to readers.
Same or Different?
Take a look at the last novel you read. Are the chapters about the same length? If they are, why do you think the author wrote them that way? If they are not, why not?
The most common length for a chapter in a novel is about 3,000 to 5,000 words. In terms of page count, using 12 point serif font double spaced, it works out to around ten to fifteen manuscript pages. The published version of your ten to fifteen-page chapter will be about 85% of those pages, depending on trim size.
Keeping your chapters about the same length helps readers by establishing a pattern they can recognize. If a chapter is very short or overly long, readers will wonder why. It’s up to you as the author to give them a good reason if your chapter length suddenly varies. “Just because it turned out that way” is not a good explanation. Be intentional.
How Long Is Too Long?
Some fiction genres purposefully include a very brief chapter here and there. A brief chapter is like a passage with short sentences—it can heighten tension by giving readers an urgency missing in a long, rambling chapter. I’ve see murder mysteries with a very short chapter in the killer’s POV—readers learn without having to be the bad guy for long.
My chapters tend to feature three scenes. I wasn’t aware of this habit until I went through a manuscript that was sitting in a drawer. The odd number of scenes actually helps balance the chapter in a satisfying way. It’s the Rule of Three on a larger scale. Readers like this, that and the other as a good rhythm for moving the story forward.
Three scenes to a chapter does not mean that you pad your chapter with inconsequential scenes. If nothing happens in a time frame, skip it or summarize briefly. Remember, a novel is not real life, although it may feel real. In life we live through dull, boring times where nothing goes on. In fiction we skip this boring part.
The Story Arc
As you analyze chapter lengths in a novel, you may find that just past the midpoint events seem to happen more quickly. During high tension scenes, be sure to use shorter sentences and active verbs to convey urgency. If a chapter is shorter than others but the action is high, readers will forgive you for interrupting the pattern. Just make sure your intention is clear to readers.
As the scenes progress, the law of Rising Action will influence your chapter lengths—which is fine if readers understand why the chapter is short. The opposite problem—a super-long chapter—is more difficult to justify.
Most of the time, literary stories can sustain longer chapters than high-action stories. If you find you have a big chapter that goes on for thirty pages, look for a cliffhanger. Break the chapter at a place where a question is raised or where an action is initiated but not completed. Save the completion and/or answer for the top of the next chapter. Readers are forced to read more if a chapter ends with something still up in the air.