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  • Jess Lawrence

What's the ideal chapter length?


What's the ideal chapter ke

How long should your chapters be? I’ve seen this question asked so many times, and the answer is, unfortunately, not so straightforward. How long a chapter is can influence the pacing of a story, the readability, the tension – and the ‘norm’ can vary from genre to genre.


So let’s take a little dive into the curiosities of chapter length and see what we can figure out.


The basics of chapter length

The average chapter length is between 1500 and 5000 words, and if you’re anything like me, you’re looking at that thinking ‘that’s quite a big range!’ And it is. When you consider how different it is to read a 1500-word chapter and a 5000-word one, that ‘average’ feels unhelpful. Which end of the scale should you err towards?


Well, the first thing to consider is your genre. Thrillers tend to utilise shorter chapters because this helps to build suspense and tension. Fantasy and sci-fi can often trend towards longer chapters because there’s more world-building to share.


If you’re unsure whether your chapters are running too long or too short, pick up a few published books within your genre and see what the average chapter length is in those. Unless you’re doing something clever with genre bending, that should be your guide point.


Pacing and scoffability

Another important point to consider is how chapter length can influence the pacing of your story. Naturally, a sequence of short chapters will speed up the pace, and longer ones will slow it down.


In a similar vein, there’s what I like to call the ‘scoffability’ of a book. I can read five 2000-word chapters much, much faster than I could one 10,000-word chapter. They’re the same amount of words, but the more bite-sized nature of shorter chapters makes them… well, scoffable.


I’m not the only one who counts the number of pages in the next chapter late at night, am I? Only three pages? Alright, just one more chapter. Twenty pages? Probably best to call it a night.


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The use of a chapter

Aside from the genre and the pacing, something else to think about is how we use chapters. Generally, a chapter is one scene with a beginning, middle and an end. Of course, there are variations on this, but it holds true for the most part – and bear in mind that an ‘end’ can mean a cliffhanger.


There are several reasons why we might break up a story into chapters, such as changing the viewpoint from one character to another, changing the time or place, or (as above) having completed a particular scene.


Sometimes you might feel the need to switch the viewpoint or the setting, but you haven’t quite reached the end of the chapter yet, and in this case many authors use a scene break rather than a chapter break. This is usually indicated with a blank line, or perhaps an asterisk or other small graphic. A scene break tends to be a smaller pause in the narrative, and you can have multiple of them within one chapter, although it’s worth checking what is commonly done in your genre.


Outlier cases

Above I touched very briefly on breaking the ‘norms’ of your genre, but it’s worth noting that books that do this tend to be outliers – if they weren’t then they’d fit in the average, wouldn’t they?


We’ve all heard of books that use some stylistic technique that breaks all expectations – using no punctuation, making the full novel only one sentence etc. But these are rare examples, and the ‘rules’ are generally broken with precise intention. It’s not a case of the author just wanting to be different (although it might be a little of that); there’s usually a reason behind that choice.


How long is a piece of string?

A chapter should be as long as it needs to be for the scene to feel complete. Start by seeing what’s usual within your genre, and from there you can play around with it. Lean into what you feel works for your story, for each scene within, for the pacing you’re trying to achieve.


And it’s perfectly fine (advisable, even!) to vary your chapter lengths throughout. When the action is pumping, short chapters will work wonders, and after a series of pacy scenes, the reader might appreciate a slower chapter.


My main piece of advice is, when you’re working on a first draft, don’t overthink chapter lengths. It’s easy to overthink everything in a first draft, but the aim at that stage is just to get the story down. Whether you do that in chapters or as one big amorphous lump of text, it doesn’t matter – you can figure out where and when to break it up later.

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