Chapter lengths create a rhythm for your book, with the endings functioning as moments when the story—and the reader—need a break. As engrossing as some books are, we aren’t meant to consume a 300-page novel in one sitting. It’s too much information to process.
Chapters give the reader a chance to think about what’s happened in the story thus far and anticipate what happens next. A question I see writers asking quite often is: How important is chapter length in the grand scheme of things? My answer to this question is that chapter length is indeed important, but you shouldn’t stress over it. When it comes to chapter length, there are no definitive rules—only guidelines. It’s more important to focus on making your chapters fit your story, not on making your story fit the chapters.
Why is chapter length important?
Chapters guide the reader on a journey through a book. The purpose of a chapter is to allow the reader to pause and reflect. Instead of stressing over maintaining a specific word count for each chapter, I think a better question to ask is the following: How much should a reader be asked to read before you give them a break?
As a reader, I tend to enjoy books where the chapters are varied in length. If I’m engrossed in a novel that averages 4,000 words (approx. 15 pages) per chapter, then three-quarters of the way through, I come across a chapter that has about 500 words (approx. 2 pages), it will grab my attention. When this is done with intention, however, abnormally long chapters or abnormally short ones can effectively change the pace of the story at key moments.
How long should a chapter be?
Truthfully speaking, there’s no “right” answer to this question. It depends on your goals for your book. Do you want your story to feel fast-paced and breathless? Then short chapters may be the best way to execute that feeling. If your story is more leisurely, then longer chapters may be the better way to go. Remember, there are no rules and it’s the story that matters most. Padding an uneventful chapter with unnecessary content that doesn’t move the plot forward will bore and exhaust your reader. On the flipside, compressing a high-action scene so you can stay within a word count target can make your story feel erratic.
Tips for writing your chapters
Think of chapters like mini stories that are unresolved yet interconnected. To understand the whole story, the reader has to read all of them. Each chapter in your book should have at least one scene, which should include the following:
- A setting
- Conflict (internal and external)
- Action and reaction (or cause and effect)
Because they function like mini stories, be sure each chapter contributes to the overall story and moves it forward. When you lose sight of the point of your story, the chapters will begin to feel unfocused. If you’re having trouble keeping on track with the plot, a mind map is a helpful tool to rein things back in.
As mentioned before, don’t include unnecessary content. Readers will recognize this as fluff. Imagery is important for a compelling story, but don’t get down in the trenches with the details.
Chapter length is important because it helps control the pace in which your story is experienced by the reader. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing chapters. (I can’t emphasize this enough.) My advice is to concentrate on making the content of your story the best it can be, especially when writing your first draft. Always remember, it’s the story that matters most.