Writing Logistics: Chapter Length
For new writers, and many times even those of us with a few stories under our belts, trying to determine the best length for each chapter is enough to question everything you know about writing. Do you shoot to keep them uniform, every chapter the same length, or do you try to vary them to make the story feel more dynamic? The truth is, unlike when we talked about novel length yesterday, there is no real guideline for chapter length, but here are a few things to keep in mind as you wrack your brain trying to find the answer that fits your story.
What we do have is a very general, and often broken, range of about 3 to five thousand words.
Yup, now that 4230-word chapter that followed the 300-word one doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
The truth is, the chapter length should be determined by what happens within the story, rather than the word count. A short chapter can increase the pace of a story, while a long chapter can be used for drawn-out or scenes that happen over a long period of time, such as a 3-day trek across the country.
Chapter Length of Popular Novels
While there is no hard and fast rule for chapter length, most authors who have been around for a while tend to fall into that under 5000-words category. Let’s take a look at three popular YA novels that have been everywhere over the past 10 years and see how they compare.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has an average of 4,560 words per chapter.
- Twilight uses about 4,580 words per chapter.
- The Hunger Games uses 3,700-word chapters, dividing each chapter into three scenes.
Each of these examples falls between 3000-5000 words, and other books in the same series are similar. This doesn’t mean they don’t have shorter or longer chapters, but this is the average word count.
“The truth is, the chapter length should be determined by what happens within the story, rather than the word count.”
What About Scenes?
Scenes are important and we’ll be talking more about them tomorrow, but I thought they should be covered briefly here as well.
Scenes can be used to break up the action, to switch perspective to a different character, to pass time, or for any number of other reasons but they should be used sparingly. Having 5 scenes in a 1500-word chapter is going to have a negative effect on the reader. The first is that they may lose where they are in the story or whose point of view they are reading. They may also give too many places for the reader to lose immersion within the story, pulling them out of that world and back into their own.
Many famous authors don’t use scenes to split things up and instead opt for shorter chapters instead. The only right way to handle this is to know your story and know your audience. Keeping that in mind, try to keep your scenes to only a few per chapter.
Let The Story Decide
The above are good ballpark figures to bear in mind but, again, any chapter length is ultimately dictated by the story. Warren Ellis’s Crooked Little Vein has a chapter with only seven words, each of which contributes to the reader’s knowledge of the main character. And that’s the point. As long the chapter is a necessary building block in the story, it can be as short as you like.
Take more care when letting a chapter get away from you, though. Each chapter is an episode in the story and should give the reader enough information to contentedly stop reading after each.