The proper use of chapters probably won't make or break your book — but it can make for a better reading experience. That said, one of the questions many writers ask has to do with chapter length. Specifically, how long a chapter should be.
Average novel chapter lengths fall in the 3,000- to 4,000-word range. But there are plenty of wildly successful books that have longer and shorter chapters. Nonfiction chapters often fall around the 4,000-word mark, but this is highly dependent on subject matter.
Read on as we dive into chapter length guidelines by genre. We’ll discuss why chapter length matters and explore tips on utilizing chapter length to your advantage.
- The Importance of Chapter Length
- Book Chapter Lengths (Fiction vs Nonfiction)
- Chapter Lengths by Genre
- Tips on Chapter Length
Table of contents
- Why Chapter Length Matters
- Novel Chapter Length vs Nonfiction Chapter Length
- Chapter Length Guidelines by Genre
- Chapter Length and Pacing – Are You Doing It Right?
- Knowing When (and How) to End a Chapter
- Using Varying Chapter Lengths
- Beta Reader Feedback Helps
Why Chapter Length Matters
Every reader has her own preferences when it comes to the minutiae of books. Even if those preferences are unconscious, they're still there. Some readers like short chapters, while others prefer long ones. As I'm sure you already know, you won't please all the readers all the time. Trying to do so would be a waste of energy.
That said, chapter length does matter, mostly because every chapter should have a purpose. This is one of the keys to writing a book chapter. And once that purpose has been fulfilled, you can end the chapter knowing that you've accomplished what you came to do. Even if the chapter is 500 words. Or 5,000.
But at the same time, having incredibly long chapters interspersed with incredibly short chapters is likely to be a little jarring for the reader. So sometimes the thing to do is utilize other tools at your disposal, such as scene breaks. More on that later. First, let's talk a bit more about chapter lengths for fiction and non-fiction books.
Novel Chapter Length vs Nonfiction Chapter Length
As mentioned above, the average chapter length varies by genre, author, and subject matter. However, it's common for both nonfiction and fiction books to average around the same amount of words per chapter: 3,000 to 4,000.
But when we're talking about fiction vs nonfiction books, it's important to consider the overall length of these books. Your average fiction book (80,000 to 100,000 words) is longer than your average nonfiction book (40,000 to 60,000 words).
A 90,000-word fiction book may have 30 chapters, with an average length of 3,000 words per chapter. A 50,000-word nonfiction book, however, may have just ten chapters, at 5,000 words per chapter. Either way is fine, so long as you consider chapter word counts second to getting the point of each chapter across to the reader — in the clearest and most compelling writing possible.
Chapter Length Guidelines by Genre
Now, for the purposes of illustration, let's discuss some chapter lengths by genre. We'll also share some examples of well-known books. Here's a brief summary of the average word counts for each:
- Fantasy: 5,000-8,000 words
- Science Fiction: 3,000 words
- Romance: 3,000 words
- Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense: under 1,000 words
- Literary Fiction: 3,000-5,000 words
- YA: 4,500 words
Fantasy Chapter Lengths
Chances are you've seen many fantasy books that are doorstops. This is a genre known for sprawling epics that sometimes span centuries. But do fantasy novel chapters reflect this? Yes and no.
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien has an average chapter length of right around 7,500 words. The longest chapter in the book is 16,300 words. The Hobbit has an average chapter word count of 5,000, and the longest chapter comes in at just over 10,000 words.
For the fantasy genre, you're looking at a higher-than-average chapter-length compared to other books: 5,000 to 8,000 words.
Science Fiction Chapter Lengths
Science fiction books have a wide variety of lengths. Although often lumped in with fantasy novels, the average chapter length is usually shorter, at around 3,000 words.
Frank Herbert's Dune features an average chapter word count of about 3,700. The longest chapter in the book is around 9,500 words. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is split up into several parts, each of which is split again into chapters. The average chapter length of this sci-fi book is around 2,400 words.
Romance Chapter Lengths
Romance chapters tend to come in around the same length as science fiction: 3,000 words. Remember, this is an average. There are always exceptions, no matter the genre.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has an average chapter length of just 2,000 words. Chapters in The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks average right around 3,200 words.
Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense Chapter Lengths
This is a genre where you'll often find shorter chapter lengths — usually under 1,000 words. Many thriller and suspense authors say that short chapters help with the quick pacing of the book, getting readers to keep telling themselves, “Just one more chapter.”
James Patterson's novels tend to have incredibly short chapters, often under 1,000 words. I've Got You Under My Skin, the mystery book by Mary Higgins Clark, also has chapters under 1,000 words.
Literary Fiction Chapter Lengths
Literary fiction covers a wide range of books, but the average chapter lengths are between 3,000 and 5,000 words.
Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary has an average chapter length of 2,000 words. On the other hand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt has an average chapter length of nearly 25,000 words! This book is perhaps the best example that longer chapter lengths won't prevent you from having a wildly successful book.
Children and YA Book Chapter Lengths
As you know without me telling you, children's books are much shorter. If they have chapters at all, they're shorter. But what about when we get into the Young Adult genre? Well, let's look at a couple of successful YA novels to find out.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling has an average chapter length of right around 4,500 words. Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner comes in at about 4,200 words per chapter.
Chapter Length and Pacing – Are You Doing It Right?
Wouldn't it be nice if I could tell you right here, without a doubt, that your chapters should be a certain length? Unfortunately, this kind of guidance isn't in the cards. And if it were, we would probably all get bored of reading pretty quickly, knowing exactly how long the next chapter would be.
All we've discussed so far is a guide. There are no rules for chapter lengths. And if anyone told you there were, you should go about breaking them with as much glee and excitement as possible.
With that in mind, let's dive into some tips on how to use chapters (or a lack thereof) to create a compelling story that your readers won't want to put down.
Each Chapter Should Have a Purpose
I mentioned this briefly above, but it bears repeating: each chapter needs to accomplish something. Every new chapter should propel the story forward. Or, in the case of a nonfiction book, it should provide a piece of information that adds to the overarching idea of the book.
And while writing tools like the Atticus chapter word count feature are helpful in guiding your writing along, the number of words in a chapter should never be foremost in your mind while writing. Instead, focus on what you want to accomplish with the chapter. Chapter goals are usually one or more of the following:
- Answer a Question
- Pose a Question
- Develop Character(s)
- Build Suspense
- Establish Conflict
- Provide Backstory to Generate Character Motivation
Ideally, any given chapter should accomplish more than one of the things from the list above.
For example, you generally don't want an entire chapter to be exposition or description. Good writers can provide exposition and character motivation. Or action and backstory. Always try to multitask in every new chapter.
It helps to think of each chapter as a short story that builds on the one before it and sets up for the one after.
Use Scene Breaks to Combine Chapters
For most writers, editing is the best time to take a critical look at chapter length for the sake of pacing. This is where the use of scene breaks can come in handy.
A scene break is often used to shift to a different POV character, but it can also be used to show the passage of time or to jump over some mundane details that don't need to be described to the reader.
So if you find that your chapters are too short, you can combine the chapters with a scene break, which is like a mini-chapter in itself. Long chapters can also be broken up with these chapter divisions, allowing the reader a good place to reflect on what she's just read.
Doing this during the editing process is best because you may end up changing scenes or cutting some unneeded prose out.
Scene breaks are tools in your writer's toolbox, as Stephen King would say. Try to keep them in mind when you're writing, and definitely when you're editing!
Knowing When (and How) to End a Chapter
Reading is so important if you want to be a successful writer because so much of writing a good book is about the feel of it. The feel of the pace, the flow, the prose, description, and action.
It's all so ineffable. So hard to quantify. You need to feel when to insert a chapter break. Luckily, there are some tried and true tactics that can help you determine how your chapter should end. And the how of it can help you determine the when.
Suspense novels use cliffhangers to end chapters more than any other genre. But not every chapter should end with a cliffhanger. Usually, the tension has been building for a few chapters when the cliffhanger gets you, making you turn the page to see what happens, even though you should have been asleep long ago.
You can also use cliffhangers in other genres too. Just know that their overuse can frustrate readers. Still, it's a good tool to have in your toolbox.
Ending the chapter on a set-up is another good tactic. This is making a promise to the reader that there's more to come (the more can be: romance, action, intrigue, conflict, resolution, etc.).
This isn't to be confused with a cliffhanger, which ends the chapter in the middle of a scene, usually when the main character is in some kind of danger or another kind of conflict. Instead, the set-up closes one scene out while setting up the next chapter nicely.
Introduce a Character
New characters, whether expected or not, are intriguing to readers. So introducing a new one is a good way to end a chapter.
Ask a Question
Ending a chapter with a question is a great way to keep readers engaged. As long as it's a question that is tied to the plot, you can't go wrong with this one. There's something about an unanswered question that drives us to keep reading — even if we think we know the answer!
Make the Reader Laugh
Ending a chapter with a joke or a silly scene is another good idea. If you can make your readers laugh at the end of a chapter, they'll want to keep reading. Even dramatic books can insert a little laughter here and there as a good way to end a chapter.
There are more ways to end a chapter than this, so don't feel like you need to hit one of these endings every time. The more you read and the more you write, the more you'll get a feeling for how and when your chapter should end. You may already instinctively know. Go with your gut and write the chapter (and book) you'd enjoy reading.
Using Varying Chapter Lengths
Your chapter lengths will vary throughout your book. Some will be longer and some shorter, as the story beats and plot dictate. You may decide to not even have individual chapters, instead breaking your book into acts like a play — or simply ignoring chapters altogether.
However, most of us write books with traditional chapters, using varying chapter lengths to enhance pacing when the plot speeds up and slow it down when we're getting to know the characters intimately. This most often happens naturally when writing, but it's good to keep in mind when editing, as well.
Beta Reader Feedback Helps
Using beta readers is something that every indie author should do. Not only is it a good way to garner reviews, but you can also get feedback from these early readers.
The best way to determine if your chapter lengths make for good pacing is to include a question in your early reader survey about it. Ask if they found any of the chapters too long or too short.
While you don't have to make changes based on what every reader says, these questions can help you see your story more clearly, making changes to multiple chapters if you deem it necessary.
Writing a novel — or any book — is hard work. And it's important to measure your progress using daily word count goals (a tool included with Atticus, btw!). And making progress includes knowing how many words you have in your chapter. While this shouldn't be a major concern while you're writing, chapter-length is something to keep in mind because it's important for pacing, flow, and reader engagement. Authors who write page-turners have compelling stories first and foremost, but they also know how to use chapters to enhance the reader experience.
That said, there are no rules for chapters. You can have a two-word chapter or a 20,000-word one. You can have a different chapter title for each chapter. You can break chapters into numbered sections. It's up to you. But knowing what other successful authors have done in terms of chapter length is certainly helpful in guiding you on your writing journey.