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I've always had trouble determining whether my chapters are within the same size realm as chapters in standard books. Since it isn't exactly feasible to count the number of words in a chapter of published work, I've always just guessed.

Recently, my chapters have been between 3000-5000 words. How does this compare to chapters in published novels?

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I say let the story flow itself .. you can't always be predetermined that you will make a chapter 3-5k words or even 10k words.. A story has it's own life, let it breadth for itself, let it think its way out and when everything will come in one piece you will know just how long it got before you become satisfied with its outcome. –  user4065 Sep 5 '12 at 11:00
    
Plenty of answers already, so I just wanted to chuck my two cents in here: Peter F Hamilton has chapters so big I can read a quarter of a book before I hit chapter one but Alasastair Reynolds tends to do fifteen pages per chapter. I think there is no right answer to this, it's really down to you (which is not a super helpful answer I suppose) –  CLockeWork May 31 '13 at 15:12
    
<1000 words is getting too small, >20,000 words is getting too big, ~5000 words is average but anything in between is a fair game. Try to keep the chapters roughly same size, if you have no special reasons not to. –  SF. Nov 27 '13 at 8:40
    
I remember my dad reading this book to me as a child, he had just finished this brilliant chapter and I begged him to read another. Turns out the next chapter was only two words long and my dad wouldn't read the next one. I guess it really depends on the book and author, I try and aim for 3000 words per chapter. –  Secret Dec 29 '13 at 2:17
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12 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

It is feasible to count the number of words in a published chapter: count the number of words in several lines, count the number of lines per page, count the number of pages in the chapter, and multiply. You won't get exact, but you're wondering whether 3-5K is reasonable, so you don't need exact. Try it on some books with chapter lengths you like, and don't be surprised if it varies considerably.

When I was a kid, books tended to have about seventy thousand words, and a table of contents that filled one page, so figure about 4-5K.

I'd think that the right length for a chapter would be one that could be read at a sitting conveniently, and would provide a useful chunk of story. That can vary wildly.

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Instead of counting pages per chapter, you can simply divide the total number of pages in the book by its number of chapters. (Just an alternate way - not necessarily a better way - of accomplishing the same thing.) –  J.R. Apr 13 '12 at 21:27
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This is why standard manuscript format is so useful; there are roughly 250 words to a page when formatted correctly. –  Neil Fein Sep 5 '12 at 13:19
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A quick counting in my ebooks shows 3000-4000, of course there are authors who prefer extremely short or extremely long.

I myself write about 2000 words per chapter, it seems 'just right' for me.

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I think that strongly depends on the what the author likes. One novel of Stephen King (can't remember the name at the moment) has no chapters at all. My mother - who always reads to chapter-ends - was half through the book as she noticed it.

I do completely ignore chapters if I read. I use a book mark to remember where I was, but stop reading also in the middle of a chapter.

For writing I would conclude, that some readers - like my mother - use chapters to plan the time for reading. If you want to make it comfortable for them, count the length of a chapter in novels you like. Take the difficulty level of the story and the used language into account. More complicated books are read slower, so the chapters should be shorter to complete a chapter in around the same time.

But if you have a good idea about it, the chapters may also used to make an 'effect'. Changing lengths of an chapter may reflect the increase pace in your story. Or you could use absurd long or short chapters to astonish your readers.

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I tend to think of chapters as the 'beat' or 'rhythm' to the book. I'm not sure that there's a right or wrong answer to the question - it just depends on what you want for a particular story. A faster paced story probably won't have quite so long of chapters (though that's not necessarily true, but I've often found it to be the case), while slower paced stories might take more time to delve into each scene (or more deeply into a character in each scene).

I tend to prefer something of a middle ground. Some scenes require a depth that goes beyond my ideal word count, some scenes require me to get through them more quickly for action's sake. Even though I ignore chapters while reading, and I'm not sure one can fully structure a story based on when a reader might stop (everyone reads at a different pace, after all), every chapter heading is definitely a breaking point in the story. Even if just for a split second, it takes the reader out of the story - it tells him that there's going to be a shift of some kind, a change, either in character, plot, setting - whatever it might be. He mentally expects it and adjusts for it.

That's the "beat" - the mental adjustment. The pause.

I think that's also why it's a good idea to try and read one's novel in its entirety in one sitting at least once in the revision process - not always possible with longer stories, but still worth trying. You get a feel for that "beat" to the story. You see where chapters maybe should be expanded - or shortened. That's what I've found, anyway.

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+1 - This sort of analysis is much more useful than looking at average chapter sizes in contemporary books. There are "beats" between sentences, between paragraphs, and between chapters or sections. The length of each of these pieces of the story can drive the pacing. –  sjohnston Dec 8 '10 at 4:51
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The author who really taught me that was actually Michael Crichton. His chapter lengths can very a huge amount - from thousands of words to half a page. They also tend to "tighten up" toward the end of his stories a lot of times, when the action is ramping up for a big finale. You can almost feel the rhythm in your fingers as you flip from page to page, chapter to chapter. I know not everyone is a Crichton fan, but I think he handles those chapter beats very well. –  Nathan Fischer Dec 8 '10 at 16:10
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House of Leaves is an interesting experimental novel that takes this concept to its extreme. In one or two frantic sections, there are only a few words per page, so you're actually going through ten or twenty pages in a few seconds. –  sjohnston Dec 15 '10 at 19:45
    
HoL takes a lot of things to extremes :D I held it in my grubby paws and looked at a couple pages... haven't read (if what you do with it can be called reading) it yet, but I sure will some time. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 21 '10 at 16:23
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It varies from writer to writer. Some writers, like myself at times, write long chapters. Mine are around 6600 words which translate to about 20 pages in my current format. While other writers prefer small chapters, 2000-4000 words.

Same goes for published work, it all depends on the writer. Some books has no chapters at all, while others use chapters to break up events in a book.

So I'd say don't worry about what other writers are doing, instead find what works for you and run with it.

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my guideline for chapters tends to be that every ten pages or so, I start a new chapter. this means that sometimes the chapter will leave the characters hanging, and sometimes it won't. I've found it to work pretty well for me.

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Is this guideline based on published works? Do you know that it's typical? You can edit to improve this answer. Thanks. –  Monica Cellio Dec 30 '13 at 22:25
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I'm finding all of this very helpful! I just wrote a prologue that ended up right at 500 words, and I wanted to know the same. Another interesting way to find a good chapter length I think, would be to sit down and read a book from the first chapter, for about 5-10 minutes, or however long you wish your chapters to be, and see how many words you have read in that amount of time.

I go by chapter gauge when I read, and when I was young I would discipline my reading habits, by posing a limit to the quantity of chapters I could read before allowing bed, or other distractions to overtake me.

Say for instance you are writing a YA novel, and want the chapters to be gripping, but not too lengthy. You could either borrow a young adult to test it out, and tell you when their mind starts to float, or put yourself in the mindset of a young adult with school, work, friends, etc on their mind, and see how long you can pay attention to one situation with other things surrounding you.

I like to read for about 30 minutes, and then continue working, and it's slightly perturbing to spend a half hour in attempt to discover something that could have easily been resolved in 10 minutes, and be stuck in the same spot you started in. Like a "to be continued" in TV shows, one is suspenseful, two in a row is annoying, three is aggravating.

These are just my personal thoughts, as a busy individual with not as much time to devote to reading as I'd like.

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Hi, Janissa! And welcome to Writers Stackexchange! Your advice of deciding on chapter length by how much you can read within a comfortable time frame is very interesting. Can you edit your answer to emphasize that? –  Mussri Oct 19 '12 at 20:02
    
I did, please let me know what you think. =) –  Janissa Oct 19 '12 at 20:18
    
Good! But remember to add an empty line between each 2 paragraphs. Ie. you need to returns (2 presses of the 'enter' key) to have separate paragraphs here. See this. –  Mussri Oct 19 '12 at 20:25
    
Yes, thank you. I was trying to hurry. =) –  Janissa Oct 19 '12 at 20:47
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I've heard this question asked so many times, and never thought it really matters, a chapter is as long as it needs to be to contain what's in it. Then I read "Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss. The book has ridiculously short chapters. Not all of them are short, though, some have about ten to twenty pages, but some are just half a page long. While I was surprised with the ultra short chapters, I was even more surprised by the way they impacted my reading. Since they weren't long, I always wanted to read just one more. It's 3 am, and I should go to bed, but the next chapter is so small that I might just stay up for one minute longer and read it. Then just one more after that one. And just one more after that one. Really got me to appreciate small chapters.

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A agree with you. I hate to refrain myself with such formatting issues. I guess the chapter should have the right size for what it contains, not to some pre-defined standards –  Psicofrenia May 31 '13 at 15:28
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In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secretes JKR just over 3K as her average chapter length and 5K in the Order of the Phoenix so 3 to 5K sounds about right to me :)

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Do you have any evidence to believe that these books are typical? –  Monica Cellio May 31 '13 at 15:20
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My average is 1500 typically, which doesn't sound like too much but I think that I manage to provide a reasonably large amount of story in each portion. It all depends on how you write, I think. I'm not usually one to drag things out, but it's different for everyone.

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Do you know that what you do is typical? The question asked what's usual for published works, not for advice on what to do. We try to keep answers focused on answering the question. You can edit to add to this answer. Thanks. –  Monica Cellio Dec 30 '13 at 22:27
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There's no hard and fast rule for when to end or start a new chapter. Like word choice or sentence length, it's a matter of feel, of craftsmanship.

Still, there ought to be a good reason for beginning and ending a chapter. Given this, being aware of some of the reasons why you might end/start a chapter is helpful.

Among the more common reasons for beginning a new chapter are to:

Show significant new action – While scenes might occur only a short length of time apart from one another or even occur concurrent with one another, a chapter signifies a major new action or movement in the story. For example, one chapter might have the heroes planning an assault on a warehouse to free someone who has been kidnapped; the next chapter has our heroes actually assaulting the warehouse.

Enhance the dramatic effect – A cliffhanger is a good example of this. A chapter could end with a character in a situation that he likely can't get out of it (such as being corned by an assassin), and the next chapter then could show how he overcomes the crisis (such as asking as a condemned man to enjoy a last cigarette, which actually delivers a dart with an instant knockout potion in it).

Reveal important information – When our main character learns something of such great significance that he must radically change his view or plan to resolve a problem, a chapter likely can end. For example, a wife about to sit down with her husband to talk about their lack of communication might learn he is cheating on her.

Present new point of view – When the perspective character in the novel shifts, then a new chapter should begin. If you are telling the story from the point of view of a commander on a spaceship and then the commanding officer on the planet below, when switching between action occurring on the ship and the planet you may want to start a new chapter.

Perhaps because television shows have acts that are equal in length – it's always the same number of minutes between commercials – new novelists these days feel they also must have chapters of the same length. While that might work for some stories, for others it is an artificiality that actually is detrimental to the story by disrupting its flow.

In addition, novels need not be divided into chapters at all. Though uncommon, sometimes shorter novels (often of less than 150 pages) can simply use line breaks between scenes rather than resort to chapters that are only three or four pages long. In longer novels, the book may simply be divided into parts (Part I, Part II, Part III, etc.) with each of those sections treated as a long short story.

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One Idea, event or decision that moves the plot.

A rabbit trail if I may:
If you check my profile you will note that I am a poet, what Is not mentioned is my background in industrial automation. Now one of the major challenges in industrial scale production is to determine the Ideal Batch Size. Larger batches have lower per unit costs, and smaller batches have lower inventory costs. There is a lot of math involved. Doctoral dissertations have been written about the math involved. Then along came a fellow who said, 'what is a batch?' and many realized that the factors that we thought were in opposition, were in fact not related and that the ideal batch size is one.

Now I read a lot, both fiction and technical. Some books have chapters that are too long, they try to cram too much information together. Some books have chapters that are too short, they don't expand the idea enough for you to understand. I have even seen books with chapters that were all the same length that had both problems. Sometimes in the same chapter. In many respects the word count is the wrong question.

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@hildred: I've seen John's flag, and I'm inclined to agree - as written, this answer is brief and unhelpful. But it sounds like you've got a point you're trying to make - I suggest you rewrite the answer and explain more fully :) –  Standback Dec 3 '13 at 10:42
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protected by Monica Cellio Dec 30 '13 at 22:28

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