How Long Should Novel Chapters Be?

length-of-novel-chapterQ: When I’m dividing my manuscript into chapters, how long should each chapter be? Are there any requirements on length? –Anonymous

There are no hard-and-fast rules on how long or short a chapter needs to be. It could be three pages. It could be 22. It could be 40. You shouldn’t set manuscript guidelines for yourself on chapter length. Each chapter in your book tells a mini-story that forwards your overall plot. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] Chapters should be just long enough to serve a purpose and, once that purpose is served, cut off so a new chapter (or mini-story) can begin.

I’ve often thought of chapters as acts in TV shows. When a TV show finishes Act 1 (which almost always happens just after something significant is revealed or an important question is raised), it goes to commercial break. Ditto for Act 2, 3, 4 and so forth. Look for your chapters to have those similar elements. When you find those “commercial breaks,” end your chapter and start a new one. In other words, let your content dictate your chapter length, not the other way around.

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17 thoughts on “How Long Should Novel Chapters Be?

  1. Kathleen Jones

    The approach that works best for me is to concentrate on telling a mini-story and to end each chapter with an unresolved problem that makes readers want to keep turning the pages. The length of each chapter doesn’t need to be uniform.

  2. Princess

    Are we as writers allowed to let a chapter end with a half a page, or do we have to make sure that every page within a manuscript is completely filled with words? The plot of my story isn’t allowing me to place the chapters where I want them.

  3. schwa

    I have a chapter in my novel that covers an important event, yet it seems rushed. By breaking it into two separate chapters, the pace has slowed down a bit.

  4. OrchardWriting

    I was asked this question yesterday by a client who’s working on a series of essays laying out a progressive view of the the Bible. I told her there absolutely is no rule other than to tell your story. For example, in her last two memoirs Joan Didion has chapters that are a paragraph or two. Meanwhile, other writers start and end with chapter one.

    The lone suggestion I made to her was that readers like little breaks every so often. Let them rest their eyes, get coffee, or mark the page.

  5. dhelor

    I’ve always liked how Terry Pratchett wrote most of his Discworld novels. He didn’t use chaptering at all and separated each segment, whether it was a single paragraph or 15+ pages long, with a simple set of asterisks, like so:

    * * *

    Dunno if that will come through with the comment formatting, but I’ve always thought it to be a very elegant way to separate story segments without having to shoehorn chapters into the novel.

    1. Walter Lewis Canon

      I almost always write in segments. I love that way of writing. It’s a lot harder to write when you’re trying to group things into chapters, and it just flows better for me. It might not be for everyone but it’s unique and interesting.

      1. PhoenixSphinx

        I’m the same way! When I began writing, I tried to write in terms of chapters, but it felt artificial and if I really wanted to get a certain scene worked on, it felt silly to tell myself I’d want to start the chapter at where I’d begun the scene. I eventually figured out that writing a series of scenes was more natural and I ended up procrastinating less because with the more fluid process I had less worry. Chapters sorted themselves out after that! If a scene is three pages (when typed), I usually try to pair it with one or two more scenes and that becomes a chapter, but anything more than that is fair game. To determine any more than that, it just has to depend on how the story breathes. There will be a natural valley when you look. So people, try scene-writing!

  6. warjna

    Bravo, Brian! What an excellent way of explaining this.

    I find that my chapters are uneven in length (sometimes grossly so!) for this reason, though I admit I did not do that intentionally. I suppose it came naturally? And I guess that would be a good thing. Some of those longer chapters are really long, though, and I will consciously use your criteria when I go to revise them. Thanks for the great tip!

  7. Grandi

    Your take is perfect Brian. I personally like short chapters to keep the reader turning the page. However, when I’m writing a book, the content dictates how long a chapter becomes.

  8. debraney

    One thing in favor of short chapters is that readers are more likely to read “just one more chapter” when it’s midnight and they have to work in the morning, but they’re really into the book. Many times I’ve one-more-chaptered myself all the way to “the end” at 2 a.m. because a peek ahead at the next chapter showed only six pages. I can improve the pacing of my novel by the simple act of finding a place to split a longer chapter into two.

    1. Bigfoot

      Right on, Deb. Pacing is essential to keep these ‘mini stories’ headed for the big climax. I think if your chapter runs to 22 pages, then you are being verbose, or you actually have more than one thread or POV going on. A chapter should make the reader want to read the next one, not tell the complete tale.

  9. lisa_stanbridge

    This is helpful, thank you! I had a friend tell me that she was once told that her chapters should be at least 5 or 6 pages long. As a writer myself, I knew that was the case, but I didn’t have the proof. I googled it and I found this so I’ve sent her the link to confirm there is no actual limit. Thanks again!

  10. iRoswell

    This is really helpful, especially to someone new to writing. It’s hard to think in terms of chapter size, but looking at it as mini stories, or episodes, is brilliant. Thank you.

  11. rickrbc

    That is one way to answer the question, but chapters in children’s books have to be shorter obviously. This is a hard question though. I think most publishers are looking for a certain word count however.

  12. adriennedewolfe

    I agree that page length is a poor determining factor for a chapter’s ending (although 50 page chapters do tend to become cumbersome!) Another way of determining chapter length is to use the scene-sequel-scene (or sequel-scene-sequel) approach.

    By writing chapters via the scene-sequel technique, a writer is able to choose a clear point in the narrative where the viewpoint character is facing some dilemma – and then end the chapter with that emotional or physical struggle (sometimes called the “cliff hanger” ending.) This practice is especially important to keep the middle of the book from “sagging.”

    To end Chapter 3 with a cliff hanger is especially important: the theory here is that Ch 1-3 are part of a fiction proposal, and a literary agent or acquisitions editor at a publishing house is likely to want to read more of the story if Ch 3 ends with a bang.

    Adrienne deWolfe
    How to Write a Novel:  Tips & Best Practices


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