What Makes a Chapter of a Novel?

A person types on a typewriter surrounded by wadded up discarded drafts, some of which cover the typist’s head.

First-time novelists often struggle with dividing their work into chapters. A sample from my Facebook feed:

“How long should a chapter be?”
“Is it okay to have this one randomly short chapter?”
“Is there a standard for how long a chapter should be?”
“What is considered a reasonable maximum length of a chapter?”
“Is it okay to throw a long chapter in between two shorter chapters?”
“Is 3,000 to 4,750 words per chapter too long for a young adult urban fantasy?”

What is a chapter?

A chapter is a chunk of a book that comes to a recognizable end, usually marked by a page break or by an extra space followed by a new numbered or titled chapter. Chapters give readers of long works a place to pause. They provide a rhythm to the experience of reading.

A chapter accomplishes something. It might develop a character or a relationship between characters; it might build a world or set a scene; it might tell a shorter story that moves the larger story forward.

A new chapter can also be a graceful way to switch time or place or point of view without confusion. It provides a fresh start almost like the beginning of a book, in that the reader begins a chapter without assumptions about the time or place or narrator.

How long is long?

Regarding chapter length, CMOS 1.49 concerns itself only with nonfiction, stating that books “are divided into numbered chapters of a more or less consistent length.” That applies to fiction, too, but it doesn’t answer the question of how long. For good reason! You can’t expect a style manual—let alone Facebook users unfamiliar with your work—to know the right length for your chapters.

Plenty of bloggers have examined chapter lengths for various fiction genres in order to come up with typical word counts. Short is generally pegged at 1,500 words; long is over 5,000. Epic fantasy usually weighs in with by far the longest chapters. Romance, literary fiction, and young adult novels clump together with mid-length word counts, and books for children come in at the short end. You can get examples of word counts of chapters in actual published novels here and here and here.

According to at least one study, the average book length is shrinking, so perhaps in time the average chapter length will shrink as well.

Creative use of chapter length

Short chapters are good for plot-centered novels with fast pacing and suspense. They are also used in novels with longer chapters to interject action that takes place away from the main plot, perhaps to let readers in on something the main character doesn’t know.

The dangers in writing a lot of short chapters include underdeveloped characters and a plot that twists and turns too quickly for readers to absorb and enjoy it.

Long chapters are good for epic drama, for world-building with background, and for developing characters at a leisurely pace. The danger lies in bogging down the reader with excessive description, tedious monologues, and inadvertent repetition.

Chapters of any length are most effective when they form a satisfying unit in themselves and end at a natural break in the action or story in a way that invites the reader to continue.

Of course, it’s not mandatory for a novel to have chapters at all—some don’t. But books without formal chapters tend to at least break things up into parts and sections.

Planning chapters

The end of a chapter is usually decided not by how many words have accumulated, but by an opportunity to finish in some way that will motivate readers to turn the page.

Planning a book’s chapters can happen in more than one way, depending on how a writer works. “Plotters” have an idea ahead of time what will happen in each chapter, so they have an advantage in knowing when it’s finished. “Pantsers” write more by feel. Without a plan, they rely on intuition to shape a chapter and sense when it’s done.

Plotters and pantsers both can benefit from sketching out what will happen in the chapter they’re working on. This can be just a sentence or two:

A rich gentleman moves into the neighboring estate, and the Bennet family schemes to introduce him to their five unmarried daughters.

Farm boy Jesse trains himself as a runner and does chores while his spoiled sisters go shopping in town. He learns that new neighbors are moving into the run-down farm next door.

Defining the content helps give shape to a chapter. Knowing its goal, a writer knows when the goal has been reached. It might also suggest a good ending to the chapter.

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If chapter endings don’t come easily to you, read more books of the type you’re writing to get a feel for how it’s done. A good tutorial exercise is to grab some books off the shelf (or look at online previews) and read only the chapter endings.

Ending a chapter

As you write, look for opportunities to end on an intriguing note. You’ll know it when you come to it. And mix it up. No need for every chapter to end with a cliffhanger. A good chapter ending can motivate the reader to turn the page in many different ways, such as by

  • asking a question that reveals a mystery or quest,
  • supplying new information about a character or what’s happening,
  • revealing a character’s thoughts or feelings,
  • stating an intention or goal,
  • suggesting that something could happen (foreshadowing),
  • creating suspense by way of a setback or disaster (“cliffhanger”), or
  • wowing the reader with grace or beauty of expression.

Kelly J. Baptist demonstrates these tactics and more in her middle-grade novel The Swag Is in the Socks, about a shy boy whose colorful new socks bring him attention at school. He begins to think he might even get into the elite Scepter League, like his father and grandfather. Here are some of her chapter endings:

  • Question: “I think about Frankie Bell’s first letter. I think he’s right: everybody needs a trademark to set them apart. So when am I gonna find mine?” (chap. 6, p. 61)
  • Setback: “If I’m stuck in a sewing class instead of art, the socks are starting off as an epic fail.” (chap. 7, p. 75)
  • Intention: “I know exactly what project idea will win the girls over, and sorry, Shannon, but it’s gonna be about me.” (chap. 17, p. 152)
  • Foreshadowing: “Seems like Frankie Bell’s letters have helped a lot of people. Maybe it’s time he got some of his own.” (chap. 24, p. 207)

Andrew J. Graff’s novel Raft of Stars similarly uses a variety of effective ways to end chapters.

  • Information: “He is not coming back, she said.” (chap. 2, p. 25)
  • Revelation (two women searching for their lost sons are on shore after toppling their canoe in the rapids): “Miranda cradled her wrist against her stomach and frowned downriver, and Tiffany knew the woman was thinking about her son again.” (chap. 12, p. 183)
  • Cliffhanger (the boy Fish and his friend Bread’s father are on a raft about to go over a waterfall): “The last thing Fish saw before blackness was a blue and slate thundercloud shaped like a beautiful mountain, a bolt ripping through it, and then Bread’s dad stretched prone, his poncho and boots waving skyward, his arms clasped to Fish’s arms, that dreadful eye wild and startled, flying like a beautiful bird.” (chap. 16, p. 251)
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How to fix a too-long chapter? If there isn’t a natural break that allows for chopping the chapter roughly in half, you can write one in. Even in the middle of dialogue there are opportunities for a character to say something or ask a question that will make the reader want to turn the page.

Takeaway

A list of typical word counts for book chapters in various genres can keep the length of your chapters within reasonable limits. But like most aspects of writing a novel, figuring out when and how to close a chapter is best done by intuition. And the best way to develop intuition is by reading books.

Sources

Baptist, Kelly J. The Swag Is in the Socks. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2021.

Bingham, Harry. “How Long Should a Chapter Be?Jericho Writers, accessed June 8, 2022.

Chapter Length Matters. Here’s Why.Reedsy Blog, October 18, 2017.

Curcic, Dimitrije. “Bestselling Books Have Never Been Shorter [Study of 3,444 NYT Bestselling Titles].” WordsRated, May 9, 2022.

Graff, Andrew J. Raft of Stars. New York: Ecco, 2021.

Sargent, Betty Kelly. “Chapter Length: A Veteran Editor Answers Your Writing Questions.” Ask the Editor. Publishers Weekly, August 24, 2018.


Top image: Writer’s Block I, by Drew Coffman, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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