Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, chapters are an important part of the process. Whether you outline and plot or you simply let the story take you where it will, you’re going to have to deal with chapters. In fact, one could even say that a book is written one chapter at a time. I would go so far as to say that every author should know what they need to accomplish in every chapter.
Read on to find out how to write a book chapter!
Writing a book chapter is going to differ for fiction and nonfiction authors. But, many of the overall concepts are the same. So, I’ll take a look at what makes a good chapter and also share some tips for what works best in fiction and nonfiction books.
If you're interested in further reading, we have a whole series of posts on the different book parts that you'll find when building and formatting your book. Check out our Master Guide on the subject.
First, let’s get some chapter questions out of the way.
- How long a chapter in a book should be
- How many chapters should be in a book
- What makes up a good chapter of a book
- Outlining a chapter
- Chapter titles and numbers
Table of contents
- How Long is a Chapter in a Book?
- How Many Chapters in a Book?
- Why Have Chapters at All?
- What Goes Into a Good Chapter?
- Should You Outline Your Chapter?
- How to Start a Chapter
- How to End a Chapter
- Should You Use Chapter Numbers and Titles?
How Long is a Chapter in a Book?
There’s no set rule as far as your word count per chapter. The length of a chapter varies widely across both fiction and nonfiction. When you're done writing, you may end up with some short chapters and some long, which is perfectly fine. That said, these are the averages for both:
- Average Chapter Length for Fiction Books: Between 1,500 and 4,500 words.
- Average Chapter Length for Nonfiction Books: Between 3,500 and 5,500 words.
How Many Chapters in a Book?
Again, there is no set rule for this. But if we’re looking at averages:
- 12 Chapters in an average novel.
- 10 to 20 Chapters in an average nonfiction book.
Why Have Chapters at All?
No matter what type of book you’re writing, chapters serve an important purpose both in the conveyance of information from author to reader and in the pacing of the work.
In novels, properly utilized chapters can create tension, leave the reader wanting more, and allow for reflection of the events just passed. A chapter break also allows you to move to a different POV, signify the passage of time, or move to another scene without confusing the reader.
Pacing in other works is equally important. When you’re conveying information to the reader, such as in any nonfiction book, you should use chapters to break up the information into digestible chunks. Again, the end of a chapter is an ideal place for anyone reading to stop and reflect on what they’ve just learned.
Shorter chapters can make for easy reading, but not at the expense of important information. Make your chapter as long as it needs to be.
While you won’t find many nonfiction books without chapters, there are fiction books out there that go against this norm. But even the authors who decide not to have chapters in their story usually have scene breaks, which serve a similar purpose.
What Goes Into a Good Chapter?
Before you start writing your chapter, it's a good idea to know what it will be about and what should go into the individual chapter.
- What is the main point of the chapter?
- For fiction, this could be character development, story development, action, foreshadowing, building conflict, or generating character motivations.
- For nonfiction, this should be what information you wish to convey and in what manner. An outline or mindmap helps to organize your ideas before you begin writing.
- How will you convey the information?
- If you’re writing a novel, you’ll need to decide on point of view (POV) and setting as well as the main conflict. This is where knowing the overall point of the chapter comes in.
- Conveying information in nonfiction has less to do with POV and conflict (unless you’re telling a story to illustrate a point) and more to do with the chapter structure and how you want to break it up with headings and subheadings.
Should You Outline Your Chapter?
The question of whether to outline individual chapters– or even the entire book– is one that’s more prevalent in fiction. There are plenty of authors that never outline their novels, much less their chapters. They just start writing, letting their story flow. But they still generally have an idea of what they wish to convey in a chapter and how they’re going to do it.
(Want to outline your novel but don’t know where to start? Check out this article on tips for outlining your novel!)
Nonfiction is a bit of a different story. In order for a how-to or self-help or history book to make sense to the reader, it needs to be structured logically. This is why I highly recommend that you outline each chapter in as much detail as possible if you’re writing nonfiction. You may revise and move stuff around as you go, but having that outline to work from will likely help you write faster.
How to Start a Chapter
Now that you know the main point and how you’ll convey the information, let’s discuss starting a chapter.
Starting a Chapter in a Novel
The overall advice for starting any chapter in a novel is to start it in the middle of the action. If you have your main character sitting around thinking or waiting, the reader is likely to be bored. When you begin each chapter, ask yourself: “What’s the latest possible point in the scene I can start this?”
And action doesn’t have to mean physical action. It can be an intense conversation or an awkward meeting. It depends on what your story is about. Start with action and as the scene progresses you can pepper in backstory and description.
Starting a Chapter in a Nonfiction Book
This is where a chapter outline comes in. With an outline, you can look at the theme and chapter structure before you start to write. Chapters should have the same format throughout the book. And they should all start the same way: With an introductory line that hooks and introduces the reader to the subject matter of the chapter. This is like a topic sentence in that it succinctly defines what the coming chapter is about.
You can also rely on chapter headings and subheadings to guide the audience along. It’s good to start with an introductory paragraph (or paragraphs) and then move into the meat of the chapter, breaking up the text with more subheadings when applicable.
Hint: If you're having a hard time getting started, pick up a book in your genre and open it to a chapter. This can be a sample chapter from which to glean ideas.
How to End a Chapter
The end of a chapter is just as important as the beginning. They both serve the same purpose: to keep the reader turning the pages, even if they put the bookmark in and come back later.
Ending a Chapter in a Novel
Often, the best way to do this in a novel is to end the chapter on a cliffhanger. Just like starting a chapter in the middle of the action is a good idea, you can also end the chapter in the middle of the action to keep the reader intrigued.
But it needs to make sense for the purpose of the chapter. In other words, don’t just cook up some action so you can end the chapter in the middle of it. Ending every chapter with a cliffhanger isn’t always appropriate. But if it works for your story, go for it!
Ending a Chapter in Nonfiction
If you’re writing nonfiction, the chapter should only end when you’ve provided the audience with what they need to know to understand the main idea of the chapter. When that’s done, you may want to write a chapter summary and a transition into the next chapter.
Should You Use Chapter Numbers and Titles?
Depending on what you're writing, there are different norms as far as chapter titles and numbers.
Chapter Numbers and Titles in Fiction
In fiction, it's up to you as the writer whether you want to use either one. Most novels have at least one or the other, but many have both. You may not decide whether you need chapter titles or numbers until your manuscript is finished.
No matter what you choose to do, stay consistent throughout the novel. Most chapter titles in novels are less than seven words and give a glimpse at the chapter to come without spoiling anything.
Chapter Numbers and Titles in Nonfiction
For most nonfiction, both a chapter number and a chapter title — sometimes called a chapter heading– are essential. No matter what your writing process is as an author, it's imperative that you spend some time on succinct and informative chapter headings. These, combined with numbers, will allow your readers to look up information easily when they need it for reference.
Final Tips for Writing a Book Chapter
Whether you're writing an epic fantasy book series, a chapter book, or a picture book, you'll need to write it one chapter at a time. For many fiction authors, this doesn't happen until the story is finished. They may have a huge word file that they then go back and break down into multiple chapters. For others, they break the story up into chapters as they go. There's no right or wrong way.
If you're writing a nonfiction book, outlining by chapter is beneficial. Before you ever write word one, you will likely benefit from structuring each chapter, even if you're weaving the subject matter together with a story (like in a memoir).
Either way, when all is said and done and you have an edited book, hand it to an early reader or two before you press publish or send it off to a literary agent. Get feedback and apply what you've learned when writing the next chapter. And the next. And the one after that!