Stop us if you’ve experienced this before: the clock strikes 8pm and you realize that you really need to pick up your drycleaning. But you’re right in the middle of your book! Well, you’ll put the book down when you get to the end of this chapter, you reason.
30 minutes afterward, you can’t resist taking a quick peek to see where you are. That’s when you discover: you’re only a quarter of the way through.
If you’ve ever felt this sinking feeling before, you’ve already got a sense of why sectioning word count should be so darn important to writers. Lengthy chapters can make readers want to give up on reading a story.
So, what’s the sweet spot for an average chapter’s word count — and why should it matter to you? Let’s find out.
If you'd like to download our free cheat sheet on word counts, skip ahead to the appropriate section below! Otherwise, read on.
Why does the word count of a chapter matter?
Chapter breaks aren’t blocks of space that the writer just arbitrarily decided to insert. Instead, they:
- help keep your readers in the story;
- help reset the story so that there’s no information overload. (Imagine watching all of The Lord of the Rings at once!);
- help you adjust the pacing of the story and create suspense.
Knowing this, why does chapter length matter? Imagine that you’re a conductor for a moment. If your story is a melody, its sections make up the underlying beat or rhythm. So the length of these affects the pacing of your story, and the way the reader experiences it. Do you want the pace to be brisk to the reader and skip in a staccato? Or do you want to keep your readers suspended on a whole note that carries on for some time?
A break also tells the reader to mentally prepare for some sort of shift. If your chapters are too short, that might make for an erratic experience. You might not be able to build up the forward momentum that your story needs to click for the reader.
Long chapters, on the opposite end of the spectrum, risk dropping the reader out of the story forever. That’s because a break between sections allows readers to take a quick breather in between words. If we made this one block of text go on for twenty pages or thirty pages on end, for instance, our best guess is that your eyes would glaze over and your skin would fall away and your fingernails would rot while you turn into The Skeleton With a Burning Cigarette, forcing yourself to continue reading a slab of text that just never seemed to stop. Or — worse still — you’d give up and put the text aside altogether.
Therefore, the word count of a novel is crucial if you want your book to be fit for publication. But the word count of a chapter matters if you want your story to flow right. Of course, when you're writing the first draft of your story, you want to just get your words out on paper. But chapter word count is something that you want to keep in mind for future edits.
So, with all of this in mind, is there actually an average word count you should aim for?
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How long should a chapter be?
To determine how long should a chapter be, we examined books from a wide variety of genres. Based on this dataset of novels, we can establish some guidelines for chapter length: the average word count of a chapter generally ranges between 1,500 words to 5,000 words, with 3,000-4,000 words being the most common sweet spot.
Does this mean that every chapter must end up somewhere in this range? Heck no. Books with much shorter sections become bestsellers all the time. (Kurt Vonnegut or Dan Brown, for instance.) And are there books with chapters that consistently score above 5,000 words? Of course! May we introduce you to J.R.R. Tolkien?
But it's safe to say that 1,500-5,000 is the normal range for most books. In any case, to see how authors use this tactic to set their pacing, we also mapped out the word count of every chapter in four famous books:
And as you can see, it varies, depending on the story. The average chapter word count of these novels falls within the 2,000-5,000 range. As Persuasion progresses, Jane Austen seems to elongate hers, building them up on a crescendo. George R.R. Martin and Harper Lee keep things more evenly paced in A Game of Thrones and To Kill A Mockingbird, respectively. The chapters in The Fault In Our Stars, meanwhile, grow shorter just as Hazel's time with Augustus shortens. Ultimately, the way you section your book depends on the effect that you want to achieve at any given point in your novel.
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CHEATSHEET: What Should Your Word Counts Be?
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How do you write the chapter break?
Of course, sometimes the best way to chapter your book won’t crystallize until you start editing. So if you want your chapter breaks to pack a punch (whether it’s your first, second, or even fifth draft), these are a few of the ways you can frame the end of each section.
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1. The Promise
Broadly speaking, a break does one of two things: look forward or look back. The former promises more intrigue in the next chapter, often by foreshadowing things to come. This is from the ending of Chapter 3 in The Hobbit:
The next morning was a midsummer’s morning as fair and fresh as could be dreamed: blue sky and never a cloud, and the sun dancing on the water. Now they rode away amid songs of farewell and good speed, with their hearts ready for more adventure, and with a knowledge of the road they must follow over the Misty Mountains to the land beyond.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
This passage promises the reader plenty of upcoming adventure. Of course, its strategic placement at the end of the chapter also sets a reader’s irony senses tingling, telling them that things might not be all so bright and cheery for Bilbo and the gang soon.
2. The Resolution
Looking back on past events is another common way to end a chapter. This technique can simply bring the scene to a close, or it can be a way to summarize. In the exposition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling re-familiarizes us with Harry Potter, an unusual boy wizard who misses some school friends. In this case, the conclusion nicely wraps up the themes and motifs she’s just introduced:
Deciding that he’d worry about the Hogsmeade form when he woke up, Harry got back into bed and reached up to cross off another day on the chart he’d made for himself, counting down the days left until his return to Hogwarts. Then he took off his glasses and lay down; eyes open, facing his three birthday cards.
Extremely unusual though he was, at that moment Harry Potter felt just like everyone else — glad, for the first time in his life, that it was his birthday.
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Though it’s normally a bit of a cliché to close a chapter by getting the character to fall asleep, Rowling does a clever twist on it by making this an occasion worth describing.
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3. The Cliffhanger
You bet we’ve all experienced our fair share of screaming matches with this sort of ending. Charles Dickens, whose serialized novels got readers in the 1800s coming back every week, was a master at writing cliffhangers— sometimes even in the middle of fight scenes.
Here is an example from Chapter 5 of Great Expectations:
But I ran no farther than the house door, for there I ran head-foremost into a party of soldiers with their muskets, one of whom held out a pair of handcuffs to me, saying, “Here you are, look sharp, come on!”
— Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
This time, the chapter ends mid-scene. In addition, this particular cliffhanger rests on a physical act — the soldiers approaching Pip. But it could just as well be a dawning mental or emotional realization that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Whatever shape the cliffhanger takes, it’s the anticipation you generate that will keep your audience eagerly flipping those pages.
One caveat: you can only use this technique sparingly, or else it’ll start to grow repetitive and lose its impact.
4. The Era or POV Jump
If you’re writing a book that uses multiple perspectives or jumps time periods, the chapter break is anobvious opportunity to switch things up. One of the most prominent practitioners is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which cycles between a total of 31 characters. Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park also uses a break effectively to shift POVs:
Park couldn’t think of a way to get rid of her on the bus. Or a way to get rid of himself. So he put his headphones on before the girl sat down and turned the volume all the way up.
Thank God she didn’t try to talk to him.
— Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park
Then the next section segues smoothly into Eleanor’s take on things, keeping readers intrigued by revealing a new angle on previous events. When there are more than two POV characters, you'll need to make sure that you distribute time equitably between them while making each character interesting in their own right, so that one 7,000-word chapter with a boring character doesn't slow the whole story down.
That said, there are always exceptions, which takes us to our next important point...
Guidelines, not rules
As with everything else when it comes to writing a book, these are only guidelines—not rules. Though the average word count of a chapter is around 2,000 – 5,000 words, it all depends on your story. (We can't emphasize this enough.)
There are plenty of books that purposefully play with the word counts of their chapters. The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2015, has 12 sections that steadily decrease in word count to mirror the waning of the moon. (The first chapter of The Luminaries is 360 pages, whereas the final is two pages.) Then there’s William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which Vardaman’s famous five-word sentence, “My mother is a fish,” is the whole of Chapter 19. Or consider Fahrenheit 451, which contains a Part I and Part II — but no chapters.
So, don’t write a chapter with only one eye on your story and the other on your word count. When you're outlining your book and writing your first draft, concentrate on making the content of your story the best it can be. Then you can always circle back to adjust word counts afterward, with pacing and reader experience in mind.
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What do you think about chapter word counts? Have any tips for your fellow writers? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
How long should my chapters be? ›
There are no rules when it comes to chapter length. The important thing is to concentrate on making your chapters fit your story, not on making your story fit your chapters. Many novelists these days prefer chapters that are between 1,500 words—or six book pages— and 8,000 words, or 32 book pages.How many words is a good chapter length? ›
Some will tell you 2,500 words is the average, while others will say that 3,000 to 5,000 word chapters are more likely to be the norm. Most agree that under 1,000 words would be rather short and that over 5,000 might be rather too long. As a general guideline, chapters should be between 3,000 to 5,000 words.Is a 1000 word chapter too short? ›
As a general rule, if a chapter is under 1,000 words, it might not be a whole idea or chapter. It might be part of something else. See if it makes more sense to combine it with another chapter. If your chapter is more than 5,000 words, see if you can break it into different ideas.Should chapter lengths be consistent? ›
Be consistent with your chapter lengths
This is important, whether you write long chapters (which would be 20 pages), or medium chapters (10 pages) or short chapters (3 to 5 pages).
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.Is 3 pages too short for a chapter? ›
A: There are no hard-and-fast rules on how long or short a chapter needs to be. It could be three pages.How long are chapters usually? ›
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.Is a 2000 word chapter too short? ›
As with everything else when it comes to writing a book, these are only guidelines—not rules. Though the average word count of a chapter is around 2,000 – 5,000 words, it all depends on your story. (We can't emphasize this enough.) There are plenty of books that purposefully play with the word counts of their chapters.How long should it take to write a chapter? ›
Well, most chapters are 2,000 to 5,000 words long, so it should take you about 1-3 weeks per chapter when you're first starting out. What you should really do is determine how long each of your chapters will be, and give yourself appropriate deadlines for each.What is the shortest chapter ever written? ›
Your Genial Uncle. The shortest chapter in a published book is in Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne: it has no words.
How many scenes in a chapter? ›
Chapters can contain only one scene, or even just a portion of a scene, if it's a really important one that you think should span multiple chapters. Chapters can stop midway through a scene to enhance suspense. Chapters can skip a few scenes and pick up in the future to make the reader more active.How many times should you read a chapter? ›
Reading a college textbook chapter a second or third time is normal and expected. It is highly desirable, especially if the subject matter is unfamiliar. A pleasant discovery for many students is that deep comprehension may occur easily by the third reading.Can some chapters be shorter than others? ›
A chapter is as long or as short as it needs to be, in order to tell that part of the story. Perfect example is my current primary novel project. Some chapters are less than 10 pages, but one of them is like 20+ pages, and that's fine because it's a long section of story.When should you stop a chapter? ›
Any chapter that doesn't further the overall story in some way should be cut. This means that every chapter has a little part of the story to tell. And as soon as the chapter has told its part of the story, it should end.When should you do chapter breaks? ›
Writer's Digest suggests inserting chapter breaks either when you shift the story in time or location, or in the middle of an action scene – to create a cliffhanger and keep people turning the pages.Is 25 chapters good for a book? ›
As a general rule, novels between 70,000 and 90,000 words will probably have anywhere between 15 and 25 chapters. But in the end, the number of chapters in your book should be secondary to your story.How many chapters can you finish in a day? ›
If you want to complete 3 chapter in 1 Day then 12 hour is Sufficient..How long is a chapter of Harry Potter? ›
Its average chapter length is 4282 words. 3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: The iconic 1997 YA novel by J.K. Rowling is similar to The Kite Runner in that its average chapter contains 4559 words. 4.How far down should a chapter start? ›
In a published book, chapters generally begin one-third to halfway down the page.How many pages is 2,000 words? ›
Answer: 2000 words is 4 pages single spaced or 8 pages double spaced.
How short is too short of a chapter? ›
There is no such thing as too short. A chapter should be no longer than is necessary to tell the story within it. Think of chapters as stories within stories. Each one has a beginning, middle, and end.How long should it take to read one chapter? ›
The whole process of reading a chapter and taking notes will vary for each individual; you should plan about 3-5 hours per chapter until you get a system down.How many pages should each chapter be? ›
The industry average for a book's chapter length is about 8–10 pages. Because font sizes may vary, a more logical method is to aim for an average word count. Although this differs depending on the genre you are writing in, the average range is between 1,500–5,000 words per chapter.Is 100 pages enough for a book? ›
No. A 100-page book is too short to be considered a novel, regardless of the genre. Here's why: stories are classified according to their word counts. We'll dive deeper into that a little later, but for now, remember that if it's 100 pages long, or fewer than around 40,000 words, it's not a novel.How many chapters is 10,000 words? ›
But, from the research I've been doing over the past few days, one thing seems to be fairly common among them, which is that they like to receive 10,000 words, or three chapters, whichever comes first, from querying authors.What should a first chapter do? ›
- Putting your reader into the world (location/setting/time period)
- Posing a question the reader wants to get an answer for (create mystery or intrigue)
- Introducing the main character.
- Setting the mood.
- Kickstarting the plot development (your inciting incident)
The industry average for a book's chapter length is about 8–10 pages. Because font sizes may vary, a more logical method is to aim for an average word count. Although this differs depending on the genre you are writing in, the average range is between 1,500–5,000 words per chapter.Can a chapter be 500 words? ›
At the shorter end, short can be very short. I've quite often written chapters that are 500 words or so. (That's a page and a half or so of an ordinary paperback.) If you want to go to 300 words or even less, you can.